SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Phil Mickelson was working hard as he made his way down the 437-yard, par-4 14th hole at Torrey Pines South, the military-appreciation hole, at the Farmers Insurance Open pro-am on Wednesday. Mickelson chatted up the "military caddie" who carried the Hall of Famer's bag from tee to green, giving the 41-year-old lefty's regular bag man, Jim Mackay, a 20-minute break.
After finding the left rough off the tee, Mickelson hit his approach into the front-left greenside bunker, as did one of his amateur playing partners, whose ball wound up in a fried-egg lie. Mickelson splashed out to within inches of the hole before giving the amateur a lesson on how to play his shot. The man caught it thin, sending his ball skittering over the green, and Mickelson went back to offer more advice. He climbed out of the sand and spied a uniformed military officer on the edge of the green, and the two men shook hands and talked.
All of which begged the big question about Mickelson, who has been around seemingly forever, has psoriatic arthritis and has been in a putting slump for years: How much does he have left to give? According to Phil, the answer is plenty. Asked in his press conference after the round if he's a better player than he was two years ago, he said he is.
"I believe by quite a bit," he said. "But you haven't seen the scores yet."
The people's choice at Torrey, Mickelson will tee off with pals Hunter Mahan and Nick Watney on the South Course at 1:10 p.m. Eastern Thursday. Mickelson's pro-am group attracted the largest gallery by far Wednesday, which was no surprise. Even tournament director Tom Wilson is open about his love for Lefty.
"I'm in my 20th year, and I'll retire after this week," Wilson said. "So it would be cool if Phil won, because he won the tournament in my first year."
The likelihood of such an outcome is open for debate. On the plus side, Mickelson finished second by a shot to fellow lefty Bubba Watson last year. A dozen of Mickelson's 39 PGA Tour wins have come in California, including three at Torrey Pines (1993, 2000, 2001), which is only 17 miles from his home in Rancho Santa Fe. He's played the venerable seaside track since he was a kid, honing his game in San Diego County Junior Golf Association tournaments.
But aside from his play at the Masters, Mickelson seems to have lost a step, a natural consequence of age and circumstances. His wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Phil was diagnosed with arthritis. And his putting left him. Like Tiger Woods, he hasn't had a multi-win season since 2009.
But that's all in the past, Mickelson said.
"I think I've got that turned around — I'm excited," he said. "I think these last eight weeks, I'm so excited. I enjoy putting, and I think I've got it dialed in."
He's abandoned the belly putter that made so much news last year and has gone back to the flatstick he knows best, Odyssey's version of a classic, the Wilson 8802-style model that was made famous by Ben Crenshaw and Arnold Palmer.
"I was looking for a shortcut with the belly-putter," Mickelson said. "I found what was best for me was to go back to the way I putted growing up as a kid, with a blade style putter and an aggressiveness that I had at a younger age."
Even if the move pays off, Mickelson has other concerns. In his first round of 2012 at La Quinta, at last week's Humana Challenge, he sprayed his driver all over the course and shot 74. Although he recovered to make the cut — he tied for 49th place — it was a grim reminder of the bugaboo that cost him the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, and perhaps an ominous sign for the future.
"Yeah, I'm using our new [Callaway] Razr Fit driver, but I didn't in the first round last week, and it was a mistake," Mickelson said. "I don't know what I was thinking. I had worked with it, I felt good with it, but I didn't want to make any changes from the previous season. So I hit a couple out [of bounds], and that made the change [to the new driver] pretty easy."
The 2011 season was like the plot of Midnight in Paris: It was all about the roaring 20s, or 20-somethings — chief among them Keegan Bradley. Historically, though, players hit their prime in their 30s. With few exceptions (Todd Hamilton, Mark O'Meara, Kenny Perry, Vijay Singh), they falter in their 40s.
Mickelson, though, has been the exception to the rule more than once on Tour. He's found ways to win at Augusta and elsewhere no matter where he hits it, and while the fairways on the North Course at Torrey are narrow and play narrower because of the crosswinds, and were the hardest to hit on Tour in 2011, Mickelson doesn't seem particularly daunted.
"Well, that's actually great for me," he said. "If everybody misses the fairway, the odds are in my favor. Seve [Ballesteros] used to say he'd love to play with zero fairways. That would probably be the same for me, because if we all had to play out of the rough, I've got a distinct advantage. I've been there enough."
Give Mickelson this much: He hasn't lost his sense of humor.