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Phil Mickelson is the No. 1 player in golf, at least among active players.
The way he played at the end of last year, and as excited as he is about his game going into a new season, he has reason to believe he can be No. 1 when Tiger Woods returns.
His putting feels better ever, courtesy of hooking up with former PGA champion Dave Stockton toward the end of the FedEx Cup and getting immediate results with a victory at the Tour Championship. Mickelson says his driving has gone from a weakness to a weapon. He has gone to a driver with about 6-degree loft, and his misses are not what they used to be.
And the last two tournaments he played last year, the final day turned into a duel with Woods. Mickelson won them both.
"At the end of last year, I felt like things were starting to really come together," Mickelson said Wednesday. "Taking some weaknesses and turning them into strengths give me the confidence or the belief that this could be an exceptional year."
It starts for Mickelson when the Farmers Insurance Open gets under way at Torrey Pines. And his season starts without Woods, who is on indefinite leave from his spectacular and sordid downfall.
That's about the only thing that tempered Mickelson's enthusiasm.
He doesn't look at Woods' absence as any greater opportunity than when Woods was playing, for Mickelson is among the few that relish such competition. Nor does Mickelson look at himself as the one player capable of bringing star power to golf.
"Nobody will be able to ... fill the shoes," Mickelson said.
Speaking for the first time in public since Woods' confessed to infidelity, Mickelson didn't bother waiting for the first question at his press conference Wednesday. He offered a pre-emptive strike filled with compassion and perspective, even if it was short on detail.
"The game of golf needs him to come back," Mickelson said. "It's important for him to come back and be a part of the sport. But right now, he's got a lot more important things going on in his life. Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin, and we care deeply about how this turns out.
"But I'm going to choose not to talk about it publicly anymore, and I appreciate your understanding on that."
More questions followed, although Mickelson refused to be drawn into a discussion on whether he can fill the void left by Woods or whether he was surprised by the amount of media coverage, from gossip magazines to standup routines on late shows.
He did confirm that he has tried to reach out to his longtime rival and had "limited communication."
"With the family -- not necessarily saying with who in the family," Mickelson said.
No one has more to gain than Mickelson while Woods is away.
He is the No. 2 player -- in the world ranking, PGA Tour victories, television appeal -- and even before details emerged of Woods' infidelity, Mickelson was poised to challenge him like never before.
"My whole career, I've been trying to get to No. 1," he said. "I just haven't had much success. But this year, whether or not Tiger is in the field, I still believe that this is an opportunity for me to compete in majors, to challenge him. I've had some great head-to-head success in the last year or two, and I expect this year -- with or without him -- to be one of the best years of my career."
Mickelson is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines, although he hasn't seriously contended since 2001. The South Course later was revamped and the greens were rebuilt to get ready for the 2008 U.S. Open. Now, however, Mickelson hopes he has figured it out.
The timing couldn't be better.
While the Farmers Insurance Open has the prime spot on the West Coast schedule -- played during the one-week break before the Super Bowl -- the field at Torrey Pines never had been particularly strong. It only looked that way because it featured Woods and Mickelson, the top two draws in golf.
Mickelson is among three players from the top 20 -- the others are Robert Allenby and Ernie Els. Storms swamped the courses last week, and while they are in good shape heading into the opening round, officials could only get lawn mowers in the rough on Tuesday. It was still thick, prompting Allenby to say as he studied his ball in the left rough Wednesday, "We played a U.S. Open here already. Are we playing another one?"
Els played his pro-am late Wednesday, and after missing the fairway on No. 7, he grabbed a 7-iron and began a 280-yard walk. He knew that was all the club he could play from that rough.
The U.S. Open is the biggest trophy missing from Mickelson's collection, and he's hopeful this is the year he wins that and so many other prizes that have eluded him -- a money title, PGA Tour player of the year, even No. 1 in the world.
Still, he made no secret of his hopes for Woods. Mickelson wants him back, for himself and the sport.