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Phil Mickelson set for Phoenix Open defence

Close to his best form, Phil Mickelson needs only one component of his game to slot into place for his Phoenix Open title defence in Scottsdale, Arizona this week.

The world number four tied for fifth and eighth in his first two PGA Tour starts of the year and did so without a red-hot putter.

"I feel really close with my game right now where I'm starting to get much more control over my ball-striking," Mickelson told reporters at last week's Buick Invitational in San Diego.

"The last piece is feeling comfortable on the greens. I have yet to get confident or comfortable with the putter."

The American left-hander had been bidding for a record fourth Buick Invitational title at Torrey Pines but slipped back after holding a share of the lead over the closing stretch.

A final-round 73 left him two strokes outside a three-way playoff for the title, won by holder Tiger Woods at the second extra hole.

"I had a great chance to win," Mickelson said. "I was right up there on top of the leaderboard after 13 holes but, the way I've been putting the last couple of weeks, it kind of crept in and I struggled.

"The way I look at it is I had a bunch of three putts which I haven't been doing over the last couple of years and made a lot of mistakes, felt pretty good with the driver and yet I lost by two.

"I look at that as a positive," added the U.S. PGA champion. "If I can just improve a little bit, I should have a chance in Phoenix."

Mickelson, who romped to victory by five shots on the Stadium Course at the TPC of Scottsdale last year, will tee off in Thursday's opening round as the pre-tournament favourite.

The 35-year-old, an Arizona State alumni, has always been a popular figure at the best-attended PGA Tour event of the year.

He won the title for the first time in 1996, beating compatriot Justin Leonard in a playoff, and paved the way for his second success 12 months ago with a blistering 11-under-par 60 in the second round.

Mickelson faces a strong field of 132 which includes five other members of the world's top 12.

Second-ranked Vijay Singh, champion in 1995 and 2003, is playing, along with world number six Sergio Garcia, Chris DiMarco (eight), Sony Open champion David Toms (nine) and Kenny Perry (12).

American DiMarco will be making his first appearance on the 2006 PGA Tour, having clinched his first victory for four years at the European Tour's inaugural Abu Dhabi Championship two weeks ago.

Another player worth watching this week is in-form Swede Jesper Parnevik, Phoenix Open winner in 1998.

The 40-year-old from Stockholm is a remarkable 31 under par for his last 10 rounds.

He also enjoys the TPC of Scottsdale where a closing 65, his lowest round of 2005, earned a tie for 11th place.

Regardless of who wins this week, the Phoenix Open crowds will again deliver the biggest party on tour.

Half a million fans are expected and most of them will savour the grandstand atmosphere around the par-three 16th, the noisiest hole in golf.

February 1, 2006


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