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Busy off season for Phil Mickelson

Tiger Woods won't have old full-throttle Phil Mickelson to kick around next year at Bay Hill. Nor will any second-guessing, noggin-scratching golf fans, unfortunately.

In fact, Floridians hoping to catch Mickelson's no-retreat style of engagement over the next few months better steel themselves for television's uneven "Silly Season," where the world's second-ranked player will be taking most of his swings over the near term.

Mickelson's wife is expecting the couple's third child in mid-March as the Bay Hill Invitational and The Players Championship -- arguably the PGA Tour's two most notable pre-Masters events -- are staged. Mickelson is playing this fall to make up for the off-time in 2003, including his first appearance in the Skins Game over the Thanksgiving weekend.

"I don't look at November and December as being the end of the year," he said, "but rather the part of her pregnancy that I am able to play in."

While he will play a heavy West Coast schedule starting in mid-January, Mickelson is blowing off the Florida Swing, with the notable exception of Doral, which is sponsored by Ford Motor Company -- with whom Lefty just signed a seven-figure endorsement deal.

Woods has outdueled Mickelson, if not occasionally outsmarted him, in winning at Bay Hill in 2001 and 2002. Pity that Woods' primary foil won't be on hand for another Sunday showdown because between them they have won four of the past six tournaments at Arnold Palmer's Place.

Instead, they'll match riffs unofficially. Next month Mickelson will play in Woods' 16-man Target World Challenge in suburban Los Angeles, then team the following week with David Toms in the World Cup competition in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Mickelson, who will battle Woods, Mark O'Meara and Fred Couples in the Skins Game, seems a natural for the event format, which rewards bold play and doesn't really penalize bogeys.

"I don't think there is any question that aggressive play is going to be the style of choice," he said. "You have to make birdies to win skins; you are not going to win any with pars. It doesn't behoove you to play steadily."

He's rarely been accused of that.

At least his wife's pregnancy has brought about some interesting bedfellows, so to speak. Mickelson and Woods hadn't played together in 2002 until they were twice paired in the season-ending Tour Championship earlier this month.

Of course, there are many stories regarding their reportedly tepid relationship. They are hardly best pals, but they are certainly cordial. Woods definitely appreciates elements of Mickelson's short game, which Tiger admitted last week "blows my mind."

Sure, it's only "Silly Season," but it's something.

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