Phil Mickelson starts 21st season with confidence at Humana Challenge

Phil Mickelson will play his first event since the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai (pictured) on Nov. 4.
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Phil Mickelson will be the biggest non-Presidential headliner at this week's Humana Challenge, formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic, and while he ended 2012 nicely-three top-five finishes in his last five starts, plus a solid Ryder Cup-that was a long time ago. His last competitive round, a 68 to finish in a four-way tie for second at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, was Nov. 4.

Since then, Mickelson has removed himself from prospective ownership group for the San Diego Padres, citing a lack of 100 percent commitment on his part.

He and wife Amy hosted a Birdies for the Brave event in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., raising $3 million for injured veterans. Oh, and he's been working on sketches for a considerable renovation of Torrey Pines North, attending a 90-minute meeting at The Lodge at Torrey Pines on Dec. 18 to give the public an overview of a project that isn't expected to begin until 2015.

Has he been playing any golf? One presumes so, but you never know. He's been battling flu-like symptoms, and while he's won the Humana twice he was rusty at last year's tournament, firing an opening 74 on the way to finishing T49.

In a teleconference for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Monday, he was bullish on 2013, citing "a couple of really big breakthroughs with putting and driving of the golf ball — this could be my best putting and driving year. If I'm able to accomplish that, I think the results are going to be really good."

Others in this week's field include Webb Simpson, who skipped the Humana last year; Brandt Snedeker, who tied for eighth; defending champion Mark Wilson; and Matt Kuchar, who tied for 22nd at the 2012 Humana. The tournament, which was without a sponsor and on the ropes for years, is a feel-good comeback story, revitalized by former President Bill Clinton and a new emphasis on health and wellness.

The Humana has also benefited from the return of Mickelson, who skipped it from 2008 to 2011, returning only last year. This marks the beginning of his 21st season as a pro. He's 42 and he has psoriatic arthritis, a chronic condition for which he pitches medicine on TV. He played, by his own admission, terrible golf for most of last summer, fueling speculation that his best days were behind him.

And yet he owns the Tour's longest active win streak, having copped at least one victory every year since 2004. He nearly won last year's Masters, done in only by a pernicious bamboo bush left of the fourth green. Of his mysterious slump last summer, he now says it was a result of "having to make two different swings with my driver and irons," a problem he says he has since solved.

"It was a good stretch for me to go through," Mickelson said. "My game got better each week all the way through the Ryder Cup and the HSBC Champions in China. I don't think I would have gotten to that point if I didn't go through a stretch that forced me to analyze each area of my game."

Mickelson was made for the West Coast Swing, where he's won 18 of his 40 Tour titles, and the Humana will mark the beginning of a five-week stretch in which he will also play next week's Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the AT&T at Pebble, and the Northern Trust Open in L.A.

Although he spoke of both his driving and putting Monday, Mickelson's improved stroke on the greens is battle-tested. After going to a claw grip at the Barclays in late August, he finished T4 at the Deutsche Bank; T2 at the BMW; T15 at the Tour Championship; was a roll of the ball from going a perfect 4-0-0 at the Ryder Cup; and nearly caught Poulter at the HSBC in Shanghai. Still, Mickelson has tried to get even better with the flatstick. He recently switched to a new Odyssey Versa putter that has no aiming lines along the top of the putter head.

"It's helped me not be so technical at address," he said, "worrying about matching up the lines with the line of the putt. I've been lining up more naturally and hitting more solid putts than I think I ever have in the last few months."

The proof will come in the next five weeks, starting Thursday.

European Tour: Top-ranked Rory McIlroy begins his season at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship alongside second-ranked Tiger Woods-now his Nike stablemate-and Martin Kaymer, a three-time winner of the event.

Champions Tour: Steve Elkington, winner of the 1995 PGA Championship and nine other Tour titles, makes his senior debut at the 40-man Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. Dan Forsman is the defending champion. The par-72 Hualalai Golf Course has been the easiest on tour for nine of the last 10 years.

They said it: "One thing I've learned from this is the power of Twitter." – Paul McGinley, who was named 2014 European Ryder Cup captain after an informal Twitter campaign on his behalf, led by world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.

They Said It: "I guess the only thing, it's 25 minutes away from here. That's probably about the only bad thing about it. If they could have just maybe resided at PGA West, that might have been better." – Defending champion Mark Wilson, on staying with his in-laws during the week of the Humana Challenge.

Short Game: David Duval, who shot 59 to win the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, was denied a sponsor's exemption into this year's tourney. … Champions Tour players Bart Bryant, who recently turned 50, and Russ Cochran each tied for 41st place at last week's Sony Open of Hawaii. Fred Funk missed the cut by a stroke. … David Frost has gone 200 holes without a three-putt.

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