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Phil Mickelson set for Pebble Beach defence

Twice winner Phil Mickelson has high hopes for his Pebble Beach National Pro-Am title defence this week on California's picturesque Monterey Peninsula.

Despite not feeling totally comfortable with his putting, the U.S. PGA champion has produced top-eight finishes in his first three PGA Tour starts of the year.

"I go to Pebble with a lot of confidence, although it's a tough tournament to play well at because there are a lot of factors that you can't control," Mickelson said after tying for seventh at the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona on Sunday.

"You can't control how the ball bounces on the greens, you can't control some of the weather conditions and some of the pace-of-play issues and you just have to kind of accept it and hope you get some good breaks."

Although he finished last week's tournament in style with a five-under-par 66 that featured five birdies in the last six holes, Mickelson needs to improve the consistency of his putting.

"I made a couple of putts coming in but I didn't putt well," the American world number four said after ending up eight strokes behind Phoenix Open winner J.B. Holmes.

"I started to key in on a couple things where I started the ball on line, and that's going to be important at Pebble.

"I'd like to try to defend one of my titles, and of course I came up short this week, but it was still a very fun week for us," added Mickelson, who won his first Pebble Beach National Pro-Am crown in 1998.

"To be in contention here coming down those last three, four, five holes is really a wonderful feeling."

Left-hander Mickelson, who claimed consecutive PGA Tour titles for the first time in his career with a four-stroke victory at last year's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, faces a strong field on his defence.

Three other members of the world's top eight are playing this week -- second-ranked Vijay Singh who won the 2004 title, Jim Furyk (seven) and Chris DiMarco (eight).

Traditionally, the Pebble Beach tournament has been dominated by the bigger hitters.

Over the last eight years, Mickelson (twice), Tiger Woods (twice), Davis Love III (twice) and Singh have all triumphed by muscling their way round the hosting Pebble Beach Golf Links and its sister venues Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills.

This week is likely to be no different with emerging PGA Tour talents such as fellow Americans J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson and Colombia's Camilo Villegas, who tied for second at the Phoenix Open on Sunday, well worth monitoring.

Another player who always seems to shine at Pebble Beach is 2003 U.S. Masters champion Mike Weir of Canada.

Although the left-hander has missed two cuts in his first three starts of the year, he has finished eighth or better in five of his last six appearances at Pebble Beach. Among those, he came second last year, fourth in 2004 and third in 2003.

February 8, 2006


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