CHARLOTTE, N.C. --- With the world's No. 1 golfer in a state of flux with a game suffering from neglect and other assorted demons, a debate has sprung up regarding who really is playing the best golf in the world right now.
Recent out-of-context comments staked Lee Westwood to the throne -- a reasonable choice given his close-call slam in recent majors including runner-up at April's Masters Tournament.
Multiple tour winners Jim Furyk and Ernie Els warrant nominations, though major letdowns mar their campaigns. No. 3 Steve Stricker deserves consideration for a game that has risen to consistent heights in recent years.
But any argument that doesn't end with unanimous acclamation for Phil Mickelson should be discarded as frivolous. The world No. 2 is clearly No. 1 until Tiger Woods gets his act together.
We've been waiting for years for someone to step forward as a legitimate rival to Woods, and Mickelson has most consistently fit the bill. Now more than ever.
The Masters marked the third consecutive event Mickelson has won with Woods in the field, adding to last fall's Tour Championship at East Lake and the WGC-HSBC event in China.
He's in a strong position at Quail Hollow to make it four in a row, sitting tied for second just two shots behind Monday qualifier Billy Mayfair.
"I'm excited about my opportunities (today)," he said.
Mickelson is working on a streak of consistency that usually isn't one of the lists he tops. This week marks the 20th consecutive event he's reached the weekend -- a streak that dates back 13 months to the week before the 2009 Masters when he missed the cut in Houston.
That comfortably leads the PGA Tour over Westwood's 15 (which doesn't include a missed European Tour cut in Abu Dhabi this year), Stricker and Angel Cabrera's 12 and Els and K.J. Choi's 11. Woods' cut streak reset to zero on Friday.
Twice before Mickelson has posted 21 consecutive made cuts on tour (spanning 1996-97 and 2004-05).
Mickelson wasn't even aware of the streak when asked about it Wednesday.
"What is it, seven?" he said with a laugh. "I think it's attributable to the World Golf Championship events that don't have a cut."
Actually, the only reason Mickelson hasn't established a personal best already with his made cut at Quail Hollow this week is because he skipped two guaranteed checks earlier this season at Kapalua and the WGC Match Play.
"The cuts made is not something I ever focus on," he said. "I'm trying to get in contention. Certainly you don't have a chance on the weekend if you don't make the cut, but that's really not something that crosses my mind."
But it still says something about a golfer. Among the many amazing things Woods has done in his career, missing only seven cuts in 241 career pro starts (including a streak of 141 consecutive made cuts from 1998-2005) might be the most phenomenal.
Mickelson has tightened up his game in that regard. He missed 10 cuts his first full season in 1993 and as recently as 2007 he missed five (including the U.S. and British Opens). But he's missed only three total in the past three seasons.
For all of the criticism he got for a relative slow start in 2010, Mickelson is quickly making up for lost time. He leads the PGA Tour in percentage of drives longer than 300 yards and in par-5 birdie conversion as he stalks a second victory in as many starts.
"I feel like my game is starting to come around," he said after a week of practice following a post-Masters layoff. "I see the improvement each day, and I feel like it's back to a level close to where it was at Augusta. So I certainly have high expectations this week and next."
Those high expectations this week couldn't even get derailed by a bout of food poisoning.
In fact, the pre-tournament ailment that forced him to withdraw from the pro-am actually seems to have spurred him on just as similar maladies did in 2001 at Torrey Pines and last year at Doral.
"The last two times I've fainted and woken up in a pool of vomit, I've won," Mickelson said after willing his way to an opening-round 70. "Laying there on the floor wondering where I am, a good omen came over me.
"I think it helps me play better. I think it helps me pace myself and not get ahead. I take it one shot at a time and kind of pace myself walking up to the green, and I seem to play better."
Until Woods fixes the issues that ail him, Mickelson should be considered the favorite in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Woods might have won there by an astonishing 15 strokes in 2000, but he hasn't been that player in some time.
Since winning there twice in 2000, Woods has played at Pebble only twice since. Mickelson never misses the annual tour stop where he's won three times including twice since 2005. And Mickelson finished sixth in 2004 at Whistling Straits, where the PGA Championship will return in August.
The only place he shouldn't be favored is in the British Open at St. Andrews, where Mickelson has never seriously contended.
"I do have high expectations for the rest of the year, and if I'm not able to perform at that level that I played at Augusta in those big events, I wouldn't look at the year as being great," he said. I feel like I've got to compete, contend and hopefully win some more later on.
"If you're playing well, it doesn't matter what golf course you're on -- you'll find a way to shoot the lowest score."
That's what Woods has typically done so well. Now he'll need to step up to catch Mickelson.