DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — The Memorial had high hopes of landing all of the top 10 players in the world for the first time until Tiger Woods decided his left knee was not fully recovered from surgery.
Since then, the stars have been falling like rain, which is never a good sign at Muirfield Village.
Adam Scott opted not to play, citing fatigue. Vijay Singh was still smarting from a rib injury and had to pull out. Steve Stricker withdrew with an elbow injury. Even some of the alternates for the 120-man field decided not to come.
Who does that leave at the Memorial?
Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia, both fresh off important victories.
Mickelson had not seriously contended since his February victory at Riviera, his only top 10 coming at the Masters, where he finished six shots behind Trevor Immelman. He was headed for more disappointment Sunday at Colonial when he drove left into the trees on the final hole, only to escape with a stunning shot through the treetops to just inside 10 feet for a winning birdie.
“I’m excited about how I’m starting to play, and I want to continue that momentum,” Mickelson said. “This will be the last tournament I play before the U.S. Open. And after this event, I’ll get home and start practicing at Torrey (Pines) getting ready for that. Although the U.S. Open is on my mind, I would like to play well this week.”
Garcia didn’t need any heroics, but he was far more desperate.
The 28-year-old Spaniard had gone three years without a victory anywhere in the world, and constant questions about his putting problems were getting under freckles. That all changed Sunday at Sawgrass, when Garcia holed a half-dozen putts that proved pivotal, none bigger than a 7-footer for par on the final hole to get into a playoff that he won against Paul Goydos.
Then it was off to Spain for two weeks of rest and celebration, and he has a solid outlook heading into the summer.
“It’s definitely a boost of confidence. There’s no doubt about that,” Garcia said. “I guess at the end of the day, every tournament is different, and winning the Players was great. But I’ve still got to go out there and perform at the U.S. Open, and at the British Open, and at the PGA, and give myself a chance.
“The good thing about it is I know that coming down the stretch, my whole game can step up to it,” he said. “So that’s good to have.”
Adding to the spice of Mickelson and Garcia coming off big wins is they’ll be playing together the first two days at Muirfield Village, which is in supreme condition from tee-to-green, with rough that might be thicker — albeit different — than the U.S. Open.
They aren’t alone, of course.
Ernie Els was coming and going and finally showed up Tuesday for a tournament he won in 2004. Three others from the top 10 were Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk and K.J. Choi, the defending champion of the Memorial.
The big absence, however, is Woods.
He missed the Memorial two years ago while coping with the death of his father, and he skipped this year with a knee that’s not quite ready for competition. The question is whether anyone inside the ropes misses Woods.
Garcia jokingly thanked Woods at The Players Championship for not being there, and there is a part of him that truly wishes Woods were around at Muirfield Village this week.
“We always enjoy playing against the best, and when he’s around, it’s always a little bit extra motivation,” Garcia said. “It does make it a little bit tougher to win the event, but that’s what drives you into trying to become a better player. So we miss him a little bit, and we’ll see him in a couple weeks.”
Mickelson and Woods have switched roles this year.
Woods got off to a stunning start in 2008 by winning his four tournaments, and finishing no worse than fifth in the last two he failed to win. Then came stiffness in his knee that grew so painful that surgery couldn’t wait, and no one is sure what to expect when he returns in two weeks for the second major of the year.
A year ago, Mickelson was coming off a victory at The Players and was gearing up for a big summer when he injured his wrist while practicing out of deep rough at Oakmont for the U.S. Open. He had to withdraw from the Memorial, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open and endured what turned out to be a lost summer.
This time, Mickelson is feeling better than ever.
Even though he never seriously contended from Riviera through Colonial, he realized he was never too far off once he sorted out his putting. A trip to a testing center showed him the flaws in his stroke, and he’s starting to piece that together.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” Mickelson said. “I’ve got no more issues with my hands or anything. I feel great. I’ve had a year now to work on the swing changes with Butch (Harmon). I expect a lot of this summer. I think it could be a very good one.”
The official start of summer is a month away, but it starts here for Mickelson on a course that has not treated him all that kindly. And he would love to add a trophy from another tournament made famous by legendary figures, having already won at Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer), Colonial (Ben Hogan) and the Byron Nelson Championship.
He was asked where the Memorial ranked among tournaments he has not won.
“Well, I haven’t won the U.S. or British Open, so those two are going to be the ones I would like to get the most,” Mickelson said. “But this is one of the most prestigious events we have on tour. So it’s high up there.”