By winning in Houston, Mickelson establishes himself as Masters favorite

Phil Mickelson earned his first victory of the 2011 season, and 39th of his career.
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In a season full of surprises, the latest is that Phil Mickelson's game seems to be in full bloom just in time for Magnolia Lane and the Masters.

A day after tying the course record with a 63, a resurgent Mickelson shot a 65 to win the Shell Houston Open by three strokes Sunday, passing Tiger Woods in the World Ranking for the first time in 14 years and installing himself as the clear favorite to win the first major of 2011.

"One of the hardest things he's got to do right now is practice putting on his own green jacket next week," NBC's Johnny Miller said on the air as Mickelson blistered Redstone Golf Club's 7,457-yard Tournament Course.

Mickelson's 20-under score was three better than playing partner Scott Verplank, who led for much of Sunday despite being outdriven by 50-75 yards all day, and former University of Georgia star Chris Kirk.

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Although Mickelson wasn't ready to call himself the favorite at Augusta — "There's still some work to do in the next three days," he said — it was hard to fault Miller's optimism. Four players have won the Masters after winning the previous week, including Mickelson in 2006. He is the first bold-faced name to win on Tour in 2011, which until Sunday was a season marked mostly by golfing Butlers and Virginia Commonwealths, fine but lesser-known talents who somehow kept crashing the trophy ceremony.

What's more, Mickelson won with the firepower that perhaps only Woods and one or two others can match. The lefty made 18 birdies on the weekend, including a chip-in on the first hole Sunday, and would have had 19 were it not for his three-putt par on the 608-yard, par-5 15th.

It was the 39th victory of his career, and it will move him to third in the World Ranking.

Still, Mickelson faulted his three-putt from 20 feet on 15 as the kind of mistake he's trying to eliminate in search of his fourth green jacket. He promptly refocused and nearly aced the par-3 16th hole, then rolled in his three-foot birdie putt, his last of the day. Verplank could not save par from the sand on 16, giving Mickelson a three-shot lead with two holes remaining.

Mickelson began 2011 saying he hoped to atone for a mostly bland 2010. He was diagnosed last summer with psoriatic arthritis, and didn't win after his emotional Masters triumph in April. At the Ryder Cup, where he went 1-3, he had the look of a man on the downside of his career.

A second-place finish at the Farmers Insurance Open in January was a bright spot, but Mickelson didn't seriously contend after that, not even at courses like Pebble Beach and Riviera, where he'd won multiple times. Rickie Fowler thrashed him 6 and 5 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

Woods, meanwhile, was going through the longest drought of his career, and it seemed America's top two players might be washed up.

Mickelson kept saying he needed to "post a number," which was another way of saying he was having trouble maintaining his focus over the course of an 18-hole round. He added the Arnold Palmer Invitational to his schedule, and tied for 24th place — as did Woods — but pronounced himself pleased with his play. In Houston, he said, he planned to play the type of shots he would face at Augusta, even if circumstances dictated otherwise.

Mickelson shot two rounds of two-under 70 to make the cut, and his game clicked Saturday, when he made nine birdies and no bogeys. All of a sudden, Houston — where Mickelson's wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, were treated for breast cancer — had gone from a nice place to practice to an excellent place to practice winning again.

Although he made two early bogeys Sunday, giving Verplank the lead, Mickelson came storming back with six birdies in seven holes. He drove the 338-yard, par-4 12th hole and birdied. Verplank kept pace, but Mickelson reclaimed the lead for good when Verplank shoved his short par putt right on 14. Mickelson gave the challenger a reprieve when he three-putted after reaching 15 with a 334-yard drive down the middle of the fairway, followed by a 274-yard 3-wood. But his near-ace on the following hole ended it.

Now he'll have to convince himself that his victory in Houston, which was worth just over $1 million and sent him to second place in the FedEx Cup points standings, was only a prelude to something much bigger.

"I'm not going to be able to savor it or celebrate it right now," Mickelson said. "I've got to put it on hold for about eight days."

 

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