In his last event of 2009, Phil Mickelson beat Tiger Woods in Shanghai.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Thursday, January 05, 2012

SAN DIEGO, Calif. - Phil Mickelson starts his season at the newly sponsored Farmers Insurance Open this week, hoping to pick up in 2010 where he left off in 2009, when an old-and-improved putting stroke carried him to victories at the Tour Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

The world No. 2 and San Diego native has won three times at Torrey Pines, but not since the 2001 Buick Invitational, after which "U.S. Open doctor" Rees Jones lengthened the South Course by more than 500 yards in order to land the '08 Open. Mickelson hopes his new/old forward press, which he utilized as a younger man and which he went back to under the tutelage of putting guru Dave Stockton Sr. late last year, will be enough to break his streak of futility here in his own backyard.

"He has shown that he is clear-and-away the second best player in the world," said Nick Watney, the defending champion here and, like Mickelson, a student of Butch Harmon.

"I'm sure he puts a lot of pressure on himself regardless of the situation."

Players wore turtlenecks, sweaters and jackets Tuesday as cool weather settled in over Torrey Pines, which was doused with rain last week and was expected to get more Wednesday. Length will be at a premium, especially on the 7,568-yard South Course.

"I'm not used to hitting long irons and woods into par-4s," said rookie Troy Merritt, who played the South with fellow rookie and Boise State alumnus Graham DeLaet on Tuesday. "It was pretty soft out there."

To say that all eyes will be on Phil would be an understatement. He is the Pitt to Tiger's Clooney, and seldom has golf needed him more. Golf Channel is promoting its next month or so as "Five weeks of Phil," because the game is desperate for a story other than the one the tabloids and mainstream news outlets have feasted on for months.

Victories by Bill Haas (at the Hope on Monday), Ryan Palmer (Sony Open) and Geoff Ogilvy (SBS Championship) to kick off the year have barely registered amid the noisy, Technicolor implosion of Woods. Just as no one immediately filled the void created by the absence of Woods during his 2008-'09 knee rehabilitation, no one has done so in the wake of his sex scandal and indefinite time away from the game in 2010.

Granted it's been only three weeks. The difference this year is how few players have even tried to fill the Tiger void, with so many forsaking the Tour's West Coast swing in favor of Europe's guaranteed appearance money in Abu Dhabi last week (Anthony Kim, among others) and Qatar this week (Kenny Perry).

Part of the problem for the PGA Tour is that more Europeans (Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter) are simply choosing to play in their own league, while at the same time more Europeans have barged into the top 10 in the World Ranking.

With the German Martin Kaymer's victory in Abu Dhabi last week, a record-tying six Euro Tour members are among the world's top 10 players.

Absences by some of the top Americans are tougher to stomach, especially at tournaments like the Hope, where Mike Weir was the highest-ranked player at No. 37.

"I've always thought that every couple years you should have to play pretty much every event," Rocco Mediate said. "Not every event, but if you skipped San Diego last year, you need to play every two or three years, which I think is not asking that much."

This week will mark Mediate's first start at Torrey since losing the 2008 U.S. Open to Woods in an epic Monday playoff. He struggled with personal issues last year, {C}which Tod Leonard detailed in his excellent piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune{C}, hurt his knee (to miss the 2009 Buick at Torrey) and fell to 145th on the money list. He now must rely on sponsor's exemptions to get into tournaments.

Lucky for Mediate and his ilk, West Coast fields have been so terrible those exemptions have been relatively easy to come by. Brad Adamonis and Tom Pernice Jr. got into the Farmers field Monday after two players withdrew and everyone from the list of Nationwide tour qualifiers had already gotten in.

"Something has to happen," Mediate said of tournaments that struggle to attract top talent, which until this year did not include the Tour stop at Torrey Pines. "I wish I had the answer, but I don't. But something needs to happen."

Mickelson will provide at least a temporary reprieve, if not the antidote to three weeks of weak fields (Hope), sparsely populated fields (SBS) and wet weather. He was expected to make his first public comments about the Woods scandal at a press conference set for 1 p.m. EST Wednesday.

• In other action, No. 4 Lee Westwood and No. 6 Kaymer headline the field at the Euro Tour's Commercialbank Qatar Masters, which also boasts No. 8 Paul Casey, Perry, Poulter and Garcia (Nos. 11-13, respectively).

• The Nationwide Tour begins its 2010 season with the Michael Hill New Zealand Open at the Hills Golf Club in Arrowtown, New Zealand. Defending champion Alex Prugh has since graduated to the PGA Tour, where he finished fifth at the Hope last week. He is in the field at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

• The Champions and LPGA tours are dark this week.

 

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