Mickelson's homecoming at Torrey brings mixed memories
SAN DIEGO — The best thing about Phil Mickelson playing at Torrey Pines is that it's his hometown event on the PGA Tour, and he is treated accordingly.
These days, that might be the only thing that appeals to him.
Yes, Mickelson is a three-time winner of what is now called the Farmers Insurance Open. But the last of those three victories was 15 years ago, before Rees Jones got his hands on the South Course at Torrey Pines to bulk it up for the U.S. Open.
Mickelson has had only one close call since then. That was in 2012, when he needed to hole out with a wedge from 72 yards for eagle on the par-5 18th hole to force a playoff. He had his caddie tend the pin. He just missed.
If his recent history on the South Course isn't bad enough, Mickelson lost out on his bid to redesign the North Course last fall.
Mickelson was so excited about the design last year during the tournament that he eagerly showed his plans during the pro-am. He wanted to bring the aesthetics of the canyon into play and make the course more enjoyable for amateurs and a strong test for the pros.
But he fell victim to a quirky decision by the California Fair Political Practices, which said that anyone who worked on preliminary designs could not take part in the design or the construction based on the bid for the contract.
Ultimately, the project went to Tom Weiskopf, who is at Torrey Pines this week. Work on the North Course, used for the opening two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open, will start next week. Weiskopf said he hasn't talked to Mickelson.
"I was quite surprised that Phil wasn't chosen, to tell you the truth," he said. "It made all the sense in the world."
So now Mickelson is left to play a tournament on one course that has been changed to his dislike, and another course where he had great plans that fizzled in politics.
Even so, this week figures to be an early barometer of his 25th year on the PGA Tour.
Mickelson hasn't won since the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, and he didn't contend in any tournament since the St. Jude Classic last June. But after taking nearly four months off and working with a new swing coach, he began 2016 with a bogey-free weekend and a tie for third in the CareerBuilder Challenge.
"Just because it's not a win, it doesn't mean it wasn't what I wanted," Mickelson said. "I'm playing the way I want."
It's just one tournament. And whatever happens at Torrey Pines certainly won't indicate what kind of year he can expect.
Even so, this is an important step given the nature of the courses. The rough on the North Course is thick enough that players couldn't see their golf balls from a few paces away in some spots. And the South Course, already a brute, also has ample rough.
"It's an ideal tournament for me to start driving the ball well because it's such a demanding ball-striking golf course that it feels great to be able to go there and really put it to the test," Mickelson said.
He said he could get away with some wayward shots in the desert courses, provided he kept it in play, and that wasn't an issue last week.
"I'm looking forward to going to Torrey and seeing how good I can strike it," he said.
The field is plenty strong even with world No. 1 Jordan Spieth playing in the Singapore Open and Rory McIlroy still three weeks away from making his U.S. debut this year. The defending champion is Jason Day, though his week was put in doubt when the PGA champion withdrew from the pro-am with the flu.
Rickie Fowler, who grew up an hour away, traveled the longest to get to Torrey Pines.
He won the Abu Dhabi Championship on Sunday for his fourth victory worldwide in the last eight months, then arrived in San Francisco on Monday morning and made it down to San Diego in time to host a junior clinic. Fowler is now a career-best No. 4 in the world ranking. Fowler ended last year with a third-place finish in the Hero World Challenge, and he began this year with a fifth-place finish at Kapalua. And then he won in the Middle East.
"After having two nice weeks to start the year ... put me in a mindset of I'm able to be a little bit more aggressive and play a little bit more offensively, instead of trying to just get things going at the beginning of the season," he said. "Right now, I'm looking forward to each week and getting back in the hunt and ultimately, to continue to do what I did last week."
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