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Phil Mickelson gets his season underway

Vijay Singh is fresh off a victory in Hawaii, and still one of the last guys to leave the range. Tiger Woods had a close call at Kapalua, and Ernie Els is kicking himself for two chances that got away.

As for Phil Mickelson?

``A little rusty, as usual,'' Mickelson said Wednesday.

Mickelson and Davis Love III are the only PGA Tour players among the top 15 in the world who have not played this year. Mickelson waited until the Buick Invitational in his hometown to make his 2005 debut.

He has a tough act to follow in many respects.

For one thing, his last competitive round was a 59 in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Hawaii.

``That's going to be tough to do out here,'' Mickelson said with a sly grin, realizing that the South Course at Torrey Pines, where he plays his first round of the year on Thursday, will hold the U.S. Open in three years.

He also is coming off a magical year in which he won his first major at the Masters, was a combined five shots away from winning all four majors, and was in Sunday contention at every tournament through early May.

``My expectations are certainly higher because I came so close last year,'' he said. ``I was in contention at all four, and I had a great opportunity on the 18th hole to win them.''

But there's no time to waste.

Singh, Woods and Els -- known these days as ``The Big Three'' -- already are off to a great start.

Lefty is about to join the fray.

``I think what makes it so exciting is that we have so many guys now that are playing well, and so many guys that are challenging to win tournaments,'' Mickelson said. ``It makes the journey and the challenge of winning tournaments tougher, but it's more rewarding if you can accomplish it.''

The strongest and deepest field of the year has all the trappings of a big tournament, unusual for this early in the season. Then again, this is the earliest the PGA Tour has come to Torrey Pines since 1962, when Bob Goalby held off a late charge by Gay Brewer.

There was some concern it might be too early.

Southern California was hammered by two weeks of torrential rain, leading the tour to post a notice last week in the Sony Open locker room that a dozen trees were down on the South Course, which had received 8 inches of rain in the previous two weeks.

Imagine the surprise when everyone showed up.

Torrey Pines was in immaculate condition, and the blue sky and Pacific Ocean hugging the cliffs made for a spectacular sight.

``It's bone dry,'' Woods said after his pro-am round Wednesday.

Despite the presence of Mickelson, and the strong play by the guys he is chasing, it will take some high drama to repeat last year. The defending champion is John Daly, who got up-and-down from 100 feet away in a bunker on the first playoff hole to win for the first time in nine years on the PGA Tour.

A year later, Daly is still Daly.

``I still feel the same -- fat and all that good stuff, just like any other tournament,'' Daly said. ``It's a new year, so everybody has got to start over. Hopefully, it would be great if the results ended up the same.''

Mickelson wouldn't mind that for himself.

His plan worked so well last year -- almost perfectly, really -- that he is following the same road map.

Mickelson didn't start working on his game until coach Rick Smith came to town 10 days ago, and then he worked with short-game coach Dave Pelz four days ago.

He was the only player to skip the winners-only Mercedes Championships, saying that he is playing six of the next seven tournaments (everything but Riviera) and didn't want to wear himself out.

``I'm fresh and eager and ready,'' he said. ``Because I haven't played in a while, I really am excited to get back. I find myself working a lot harder than I have, and working on a lot of similar stuff as last year. I'm just eager to get back into it.''

Mickelson has noticed one big change from a year ago.

No one has asked him if this will be the year he finally wins his first major.

He took care of that at Augusta National, making birdies on five of the last seven holes, finishing it off with an 18-foot putt on the 18th green for a one-stroke victory over Els.

That Masters moment gave him an idea for a book he wrote with his wife during the offseason: ``One Magical Sunday: But Winning Isn't Everything,'' a collection of stories about his journey to that elusive major.

But he hopes that green jacket won't be his only major prize.

``I didn't feel this great relief after I won,'' Mickelson said. ``I feel like it was an amazing experience, but I want to experience that again.''

He gets started Thursday at a tournament he has won three times.

As for that rust?

Mickelson didn't make his debut until the third week last year, and he won the Bob Hope Classic in his first start.


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