Mickelson might be better than ever

ATLANTA – The putter seems to be the one club in the bag that can define a round, a tournament, even a career. So difficult is the task of rolling a golf ball into that 4.25-inch diameter that even a player with his own instructional short-game DVD can benefit from the occasional outside guidance.

Phil Mickelson’s victory Sunday at the Tour Championship is only the latest example. A putting lesson one week earlier from two-time PGA champion Dave Stockton proved key to Mickelson’s three-shot victory over Tiger Woods here at East Lake Golf Club.

Mickelson’s triumph will help him end an otherwise difficult season on a high note. Success this year was not measured in trophies but in the breast-cancer treatments for his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary.

“I’m looking at it as being a fortunate year,” Mickelson said. “Long-term, both Amy and my mom are going to be great.”

Sunday also brought the end of this year’s FedEx Cup, which accomplished the simple task of reminding us that Tiger Woods is the best player in the world. At least the Cup’s conclusion meant that Phil and Tiger were occupying the same airspace, both with trophies in hand, which is always good for golf.

This will probably be the last time we see them together in a stroke-play tournament this year, which leaves us asking both a long-winded and long-standing question.

Can 2010 finally be the year that Lefty presents a consistent challenge to Woods, especially in the majors, which will be held at such historic venues as St. Andrews, Pebble Beach and, of course, Augusta?

That’s asking a lot. As everyone who plays golf knows, one good round does not promise even continued short-term success. But Mickelson is excited about the beginning of the new decade, when he can return his focus to the course. In a post-round interview, Mickelson said he wants to make 2010 a “special year.”

He seems to be especially excited about his work with Stockton. The lesson was the idea of Mickelson’s longtime caddie, Jim Mackay, and may prove to be the best advice “Bones” has ever given his man.

Take these stats as proof. Mickelson needed just 25 putts Sunday, making three birdie putts outside of 12 feet. He putted just 77 times over the final three rounds.

Mickelson led the field in putting average (1.617 putts per GIR) and was second in total putts (107). He played his final 58 holes in 12 under par after making a quad on No. 14 in the first round. His Sunday 65 was the day’s only bogey-free round.

Stockton deserves a lot of the credit for Mickelson’s victory. The two worked together for the first time last week when Stockton was in San Diego for the LPGA’s Samsung World Championship at Torrey Pines.

But Mickelson also gave credit for his victory to Butch Harmon, who has helped Mickelson tighten up his swing and reduce the severity of his misses. Harmon and Mickelson started working together early in 2007.

“I have some direction now on where I want to go with the putter,” Mickelson said. “I felt like I’ve been hitting it this well for quite some time since working with Butch (Harmon), and yet I have not had the results. So to be able to put it all together from tee to green as well as on the green feels great.”

On Sunday, Mickelson hit 11 of 14 fairways and 12 greens. “He drove it really nicely, which allowed him to be aggressive,” final-round playing competitor Sean O’Hair said.

Because his play this year rightfully took a back seat to his family’s battles with breast cancer, it’s easy to forget Mickelson was enjoying a strong campaign before the bad news.

He won twice in a three-week span, at Los Angeles and Doral, and electrified Augusta with a front-nine 30 in the final round before rinsing his tee shot at the short 12th. He came agonizingly close to claiming his first U.S. Open, then walked away from the game for six weeks to be with his family.

Now he’s back, maybe better than ever.

“I’m excited about where my golf game is headed,” he said, “… and I’m excited about what 2010 brings.”

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