LA JOLLA, Calif. - The season start hasn't gone quite to Phil Mickelson's master plan.
Buffeted by winds in his desert debut last week, Mickelson has struggled for three days at Torrey Pines to find one driver that suits him. Forget the two drivers he used to win last year's Masters Tournament. He starts the final round of the Buick Invitational eight shots off the lead and unlikely to summon a miracle rally on his hometown municipal course.
But with a little more than two months until the golf world rolls into Augusta, Mickelson has some time to figure things out and get ready.
"Maybe ribs," Mickelson said of his entree choice for the Champions Dinner.
Mickelson is under more scrutiny than any defending Masters champion of recent vintage. A season that most golfers would consider a career highlight somehow got derailed in the court of public opinion by a U.S. Open collapse and a season-ending malaise encapsulated by a weak performance at the Ryder Cup.
To make recovering his major-winning form more difficult, Mickelson will have to follow a new road map to Augusta that takes him out of the comfort zone he so carefully developed.
"I miss the Atlanta Classic," Mickelson said of the Sugarloaf event formerly known as the BellSouth Classic that served as his personal warm-up site the week before the Masters. "It was a perfect place to get ready for the Masters. A lot of foreign golfers came in town for it. I'm very disappointed it's not at the same date because I won it the last two years and there's a very good chance I won't be able to make it back this year."
Now called the AT&T Classic and moved to May, Mickelson probably won't be back. More importantly he will have to find a new formula for success in the season's first major. It was at last year's tournament in Atlanta that Mickelson implemented his two-driver strategy that worked so effectively at Augusta.
Preferring to play the week before majors, he plans instead to come to Augusta a week early and put in the hours of preparation that has become his routine.
"I'm going to try that this year as a way of getting ready," he said. "The week before there's nobody out there (at Augusta National Golf Club) and it's not the same feel. So I'd rather do all my work the week before so that I can practice off site (Masters week). There's so much going on that particular week that Monday through Wednesday are so chaotic and it's better if I can leave the premises those days after having already done all my prep work."
Aside from disrupting Mickelson's Georgia swing, the three-time major winner approves of some of the PGA Tour changes that make up the revamped FedEx Cup schedule. Moving the Players Championship to May and getting it away from the Masters' shadow seems to be the best stroke of Commissioner Tim Finchem's elaborate plan.
"My preparation for the Masters did not want me to peak two weeks early," Mickelson said of the Players' old date at the end of March. "I wanted to play really well the week before but not two weeks before because it's very hard to carry that momentum for a couple of weeks. So the Players got lost in that and I think it's great that the tournament moved and got away from that. The history of that event will come in time. To have the Masters as the first really big event is great for everyone."
As for the rest of the FedEx Cup model, Mickelson is optimistic about its future. He intends to be a part of it, meaning regular trips back to Georgia in September for the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. Mickelson won there in 2000, but has skipped the past two years to spend more time with his family.
"What I'm hoping is that we have something that keeps players and fans interested in the game after the PGA Championship, after the last major," Mickelson said. "A lot of times, even at the Tour Championship, the money title has been decided, the Player of the Year title has been decided, and so it's just another event. So I think that this will culminate with having all of those things to be decided over those last four tournaments."
That's a long way away and not on Mickelson's mind at the moment. Augusta is where his thoughts are already wandering. With rival Tiger Woods seeking a third consecutive major victory in an event they've traded the past three years, Mickelson has a chance to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only foursome to win back-to-back Masters.
"While I'd love to do that, that is not my motivating factor," he said.
"My motivating factor, and it doesn't need to be any more than this, is that it's the Masters. When that tournament rolls around and we've been thinking about it since the last major at the PGA, you feel like it's the start of the year and you get so excited as a player. I just love that tournament and I love the fact that I'm a part of its history."
Now all his needs to do is finalize the menu and find two acceptable drivers.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.