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Mickelson rises to increasing challenge

Winning only reminds Phil Mickelson how high the bar has been raised.

His come-from-behind victory in the Colonial was his third of the year on the PGA Tour, the second time in his young career he has won three times before the end of May. Only eight other players since 1980 have done that.

What does that mean?

That he's tied with Tiger Woods for most victories on tour, and still trailing Woods by more than $1 million on the money list.

Mickelson thought he had a banner season four years ago. He won four times and finished second on the money list only when Tom Lehman surpassed him on the last week by claiming the lucrative Tour Championship.

``It's amazing how in the last year or two, it seems as if the standard has been raised,'' Mickelson said. ``At the time, four wins was a lot. Now, four wins is a nice year.''

David Duval knows the feeling.

Last year, he became the first player since Johnny Miller in 1974 to win four times before the Masters. By the end of the season, he was a forgotten man. Woods closed out the year with four consecutive victories, giving him eight for the season.

Four victories is better than just a ``nice year.'' But as Mickelson points out, ``It's nothing like what we've seen last year.''

``I think the bars are raised a little bit higher, and I think that's good,'' said Mickelson, who turns 30 next month during the U.S. Open. ``Whether it's a conscious effort or a subconscious effort, guys are really trying to shoot lower scores and win more tournaments, and not be satisfied with a good finish.''

Mickelson has never been satisfied with second.

Along with winning the U.S. Amateur and three NCAA titles, he became the first ``can't miss'' prospect of the decade by winning the 1991 Tucson Open as a junior at Arizona State. Then, he won at least once in every full season on the PGA Tour for six seasons.

Whether he has lived up to his potential depends on the perspective.

Since the youth of Jack Nicklaus, only three other players have won at least 16 tour events before their 30th birthday -- Tom Watson (16), Miller (17) and Woods (18 and counting). The difference is that Miller, Watson and Woods could count major championships in that mix.

Mickelson is 0-for-31 majors heading into Pebble Beach.

When he won Tucson as an amateur, he figured that 16 victories by the time he turned 30 was realistic. Then again, he thought he would have won a major -- or more -- by now.

``Certainly, I'm pleased with the career I've had,'' Mickelson said.

But while Woods has clearly raised the level of performance, Mickelson has shown that he, too, is capable of reaching higher.

His streak of six straight years with at least one victory ended last year with only a few shining moments. He was runner-up to Payne Stewart in the U.S. Open, and runner-up to Woods in the NEC Invitational at Firestone after nearly making up a seven-stroke deficit in the final round.

It was a difficult year for Mickelson. The first half of the season, his mind was on his wife, Amy, who had a difficult first pregnancy. The second half was an adjustment to fatherhood. There was little time for the kind of work he usually devotes to his game.

``I analyzed my game and what I needed to improve on,'' he said. ``I felt that from 150 yards in, I wasn't getting the ball close enough. I wasn't making enough birdies.''

Mickelson worked hard in the offseason, put his old Ping wedges back in the bag and started playing like the old Phil.

He is second on tour in putting, up from 20th a year ago. He leads in birdie conversion at 37 percent, up from 33 percent last year, which Mickelson attributes to hitting it close to the hole.

The best example of that was in the Buick Invitational. His seven-stroke lead had evaporated against Woods when Mickelson hit a 9-iron from 116 yards into 2 feet for a birdie that sent him to his first victory in 18 months.

Four years ago, Mickelson might have felt comfortable with himself, that it was only a matter of time before a major championship followed.

Now, he is looking to take his game up one more notch.

He is taking the next two weeks off, sticking to his plan of playing the week before every major to stoke his competitive spirit.

``I look at it as, 'Hey, I've got some momentum,''' Mickelson said. ``Let's carry this through. Let's continue to work hard and hit the shots I've been hitting, and bring this into the majors.''

And maybe this time, clear the bar that matters.


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