Has Phil finally arrived?

Neville Leck looks at Phil Mickelson’s exciting return to the top and says why he thinks it’s good for the game of golf.

‘Hello Philly, well hello Philly, it’s good to see you back where you belong’.

Sung to the music of ‘Hello Dolly’, there might well be a good few golfing folk, including the game’s recession-worried organisers, humming this song right now for it looks as if Phil Mickelson has finally come out of his shell and decided that, yes, he might indeed be good enough to go all the way to the top of the World Rankings, Tiger Woods or no Tiger Woods.

When Tiger underwent knee surgery after his heroic victory at the US Open last June and announced that he would be out of the game for the rest of the year, it seemed the ideal moment for Mickelson, the long-time World No.2 behind him, to step in and usurp the crown.

Inexplicably the world’s best left-handed golfer fell away, disappearing into a hole of mediocrity during most of the eight months it took Tiger’s knee to heal.

Mickelson opened with a disastrous 79 at Royal Birkdale, in the first major without Woods, and was never a factor. He couldn’t even break par at Oakland Hills in the PGA Championship and was never in the running for the FedEx Cup.

The 2009 season didn’t start well either and like Ernie Els and some the other once-hot, former Woods pursuers, he seemed to have scaled the hill of fame and was slowly sliding down the other side of it, his best years behind him.

As things turned out, it was two invaders from Europe, another from Fiji and a handful of exciting new young guns who made the most of the World No.1’s absence in 2008.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington marched in and won the last two majors of the year, The Open and The PGA.

Spain’s Sergio Garcia did enough while remaining the game’s best golfer never to have won a major to surge into second place on the World Rankings list.

Fiji’s Vijay Singh captured the FedEx Cup and Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas put themselves forward as future threats to Tiger by each winning twice on the PGA Tour.

Garcia has talked about having a full go at Tiger’s crown and although he has seen the gap between him and the king getting narrower with every advancing week this year, he has simply not performed well enough to make the kind of impact both he and his supporters were no doubt hoping he would.

Nor have Kim, Villegas and Harrington. The Irishman has himself, somewhat ironically, pulled in his horns and withdrawn at the very moment that Mickelson has found the skills and composure to regenerate his golfing life cycle.

The new Mickelson, right handed in everything he does except play golf, has looked every bit as comfortable with his improving swing as he has claimed he is while marching to victories in the Northern Trust Open in February and last week’s WGC-CA Championship.

The hard work he has put in this year with his swing guru Butch Harmon has worked wonders – though he may well have been cursing Harmon for getting Nick Watney into such great shape last week as well

Prone in the past to unnecessary risk-taking and rushes of blood to the head, Mickelson has missed out on some magic opportunities down the years and perhaps never more so than at Winged Foot three years ago when he had a chance to win his third straight major, but threw it away with a double bogey on the last.

His approach in the final round at The Blue Monster last week was different altogether, however.

He stayed calm and played relatively conservative, ‘safe’ golf to keep the edge he had on the openly ambitious Watney and in the end came through to win his first World Championship event.

Can he keep his composure and maintain this winning streak, especially when Woods begins to find his putting touch again because that, in fact, was all that separated him from the front-runners last week.
The 12-time major winner hit the ball superbly, but couldn’t find the required finish on the greens for a winning score.

With Woods playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in two weeks’ time and Mickelson in the Shell Huston Open a week later, the two won’t come up against each other until The Masters the following week.

But with less than a point currently separating them on the World Rankings list, their performances over the next few weeks could well decide which of the two is the World No.1 when they tee off at Augusta.

That in turn could be the psychological boost that makes the difference between winning and losing and it’s precisely this kind of knife-edged rivalry that will send golf’s sluggish TV ratings soaring again – even if the quiet man that is lanky Geoff Ogilvy does manage to slip in and edge them both with that fine, no-nonsense game that has matched Mickelson’s when it has come to winning big events this year and has hoisted the Australian to a career high No.4 in the World.

Ah yes. Professional golf is very much alive again.