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Phil Mickelson looking in prime form

Phil Mickelson looks like a golfer in full flight.

One week, he shot 60 in Phoenix and went on to win by five shots. The next week, he shot 62 at Spyglass Hill, one of the most difficult golf courses in California, and sauntered to a four-shot victory in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

It was first time since 1996 that Mickelson had won back-to-back starts on the PGA Tour, and the first time in his 13 years on tour that he won in consecutive weeks.

Maybe it's time to hang a new label on him: the best player to have never been No. 1 in the world.

Mickelson is still No. 4 and has a ways to go before he catches up to Ernie Els, then Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. The world ranking measures the last two years, and Lefty is still paying the price for 2003, his worst season on tour, when his best finish was a tie for third and he wound up 38th on the money list.

``Last year was my first good year,'' Mickelson said. ``If I have another full 12 months of good play out here, I should be able to get myself to where I could start thinking about it.''

There is no reason to believe he won't.

Lefty has been on a roll since the start of 2004, with a few speed bumps along the way.

One of those bumps came at the end of his amazing run through the majors. Mickelson was spent after devoting so much energy to the majors -- a win at the Masters, second at the U.S. Open, third at the British Open and a tie for sixth in the PGA Championship -- that he never came close to winning the rest of the year.

He also changed equipment, leaving Titleist for Callaway a week before the Ryder Cup. The timing of the change, along with his poor play at Oakland Hills, took some of the shine off his otherwise stellar season.

Now, he looks to be in the same position he was last year -- only better.

``When you're on a high, the game is pretty easy. And right now, that's what he's doing,'' Billy Andrade said. ``He's a world-class player, he has been a great player since he was 5. So this isn't a big shock that he has all of a sudden elevated his game.''

Mickelson finally got dialed into his new equipment, finding the right driver and a ball that allows him to go long and still have the touch around the greens that has always defined his game. And after developing a strategy with swing coach Rick Smith and short-game guru Dave Pelz, he now has a year of experience.

He has poured most of his attention into the scoring aspect of golf -- 150 yards and in.

``When I started last year working on all the shots that were 150 yards and in, I had only been practicing for a month or two when I came here (Pebble) and played well, and when I came to La Costa (Match Play) and played well,'' Mickelson said. ``Now, I've been playing them over a year. And all of a sudden, it feels much easier to do.''

The shot in question is something Woods mastered about five years ago -- playing more club to get less spin, allowing him to control his trajectory as he tries to get the ball close to the hole.

Mickelson went with a 9-iron from 123 yards on the 16th hole at Pebble Beach on Saturday, a difficult green because of the severe slope from back to front. The ball stopped some 12 feet away for birdie, sending Lefty to a seven-shot lead after three holes.

He picked up his first birdie in the final round with another 9-iron, this one from 99 yards, on the fourth hole to a back pin. Instead of having to play behind the hole -- and bring the bunker into play -- Mickelson's shot landed short of the hole and stopped about 4 feet away.

``Those types of shots where I'm taking 40 yards off an iron, that's the stuff that's starting to feel more comfortable after a year of practice,'' he said.

And don't forget distance, because Mickelson never does.

One reason he spends so much time with his short irons is because he wants to blast his tee shots far enough that even if he's in the rough, Mickelson is close enough to the green to work some magic.

The year of experience is showing in the results.

While Mickelson was at his best early in the 2004 season -- he finished in the top 10 in all but one of his first 11 tournaments -- he still only had the Bob Hope Classic title and a green jacket. If Singh, Woods or Els had that many chances, most believe they would have won more than two tournaments.

These days, Mickelson is starting to cash in.

``It's been a fun two weeks,'' Mickelson said. ``And a great way to start the year.''

Mickelson will take this week off. He is playing six out of seven tournaments, and has never fared well at Riviera. He will play the Match Play Championship the following week at La Costa, where last year he lost in the quarterfinals to Davis Love III. Then it's on to Doral, the unofficial start of the road to the Masters.

Expectations are higher than ever, and Mickelson seems well-equipped to handle them.

 

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