Phil Mickelson looking to turn his season around at Doral

Phil Mickelson has only one top 10 this season.
Robert Beck/SI

MIAMI, Fla. - It is tempting but not correct to say that all eyes are on the newly named TPC Blue Monster at Doral for this week's WGC-CA Championship. There's too much counter-programming.

Howard Stern is hosting a beauty pageant of Tiger babes, and the absence of Woods himself hovers over Doral, where he won in 2005, '06 and '07. College basketball is on the verge of a thrilling three-week stretch, and the Masters rolls in after that.

Doral was so quiet Tuesday, Hunter Mahan said it felt like a Monday. A familiar champion, someone like last year's winner, Phil Mickelson, would change everything come Sunday.

"It's a golf course I've always enjoyed and loved," said Mickelson, who finished second to Woods at the 2005 Ford Championship at Doral before breaking through last year.

It's been a quiet 2010 for the man who was believed to be on the verge of a career revival just four months ago.

After winning the Tour Championship and then the HSBC Champions, the latter while playing with Woods, Phil the Thrill has turned into Phil the Chill, as in ice cold.

He finished 19th (Farmers), T45 (L.A.), T8 (Pebble) and T24 (Phoenix) while Steve Stricker, winner of the Northern Trust in L.A., overtook Mickelson at No. 2 in the World Ranking.

The lefthander has struggled to get the ball in the hole, but he is longer than ever off the tee. The rough at Doral is down after the unusually cold winter in the Southeast, and the course has historically rewarded aggressive driving anyway.

The fairway on the 467-yard, par-4 18th hole, the second hardest hole on Tour in 2009 (4.479 stroke average, behind only the par-4 12th at Hazeltine), is pinched by a water hazard for medium to short hitters, but opens up for bombers.

Mickelson, who was treated for heat exhaustion after the third round last year, was 13th on Tour in driving distance in 2009, averaging just over 300 yards, but was 179th in driving accuracy.

"He's quite aggressive and likes to drive it — yeah, aggressive," said Rory McIlroy, who played with Mickelson for the first two rounds of the HSBC in Shanghai last November. "He goes for shots that some people might not. I think that we play a similar type of game in that way."

ShotLink, the statistical arm of the PGA Tour, last year found that those who tried to cut the corner and drive the green at Doral's 372-yard, par-4 16th hole (about 300 yards as the crow flies from tee to green) did better than those who played it safe, 3.56 to 3.85.

"I think Phil really wants to win bad," Mahan said. "I don't know how he's playing or how he's hitting it or anything like that, but I'm sure he's excited to be here. He's had great success here. I think he's definitely the man to beat."

Camilo Villegas may have something to say about that. He's coming off a five-shot win at last week's Honda Classic (his third Tour win), and his first and second Tour victories, at the end of 2008, came in consecutive weeks. What's more he is almost as popular in Miami as he is in his native Colombia, where fans were so impressed by his tie for second place at the 2006 Ford, a TV network there picked up an additional 30 Tour events.

Villegas, who was third at the first WGC event of the year, the 64-man Accenture Match Play, practiced at the left end of the driving range at Doral on Tuesday, making small talk and laughing with Alvaro Quiros and granting a few interview requests.

"Peaceful," Mahan called the vibe at the course.

When asked if the atmosphere at WGC events feels different than the regular Tour events, he replied, "Not really."

McIlroy, who won the Publix Junior at Doral when he was 9, disagreed, citing the strength of field — the CA had the third best field on Tour in 2009 — and the host city of Miami. But nothing compares to the Masters, and McIlroy was looking forward to a three-day exploratory trip to Augusta National next week.

Meanwhile, it is starting to appear possible that Woods may return at the Bay Hill Invitational in two weeks, or earlier at the Tavistock Cup.

"It's certainly going to be interesting to see not just how he plays but just how he handles the whole situation," McIlroy said.

Using new, more exclusive eligibility requirements, the CA Championship is taking only the top two as opposed to the top three finishers from the season-ending money lists on the Asian Tour, Japan Tour, Australasian Tour and Sunshine Tour.

So the CA will have 68 players instead of last year's 80. (Woods and Ryo Ishikawa are the only two no-shows. Ishikawa was scheduled to graduate high school Monday.)

The smaller field may or may not make it easier to win at Doral this week, but it does put more focus on the Tour's opposite event, the Puerto Rico Open presented by Banco Popular.

Manuel Villegas, Camilo's brother, will play the PRO on a sponsor's exemption. So will John Daly.

Among the stories to follow among the Tour's non-elites is the fate of the 2010 rookies, who are fading after a hot start.

Q school winner Troy Merritt, who opened the season with a 65 at the Sony, has missed the cut in his last four starts. Fellow Boise State alum Graham DeLaet has missed five straight cuts.

Matt Every was DQ'd at the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Martin Flores has missed his last two cuts after making his first four, and Billy Horschel had season-ending wrist surgery.

Rickie Fowler, the runner-up in Phoenix two weeks ago, has missed two cuts in his last four starts (and four of seven overall) and will take this week off, as will Every and Merritt.

At least they'll have plenty of time to watch basketball.

 

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