With new driver in bag, Mickelson expects big things

Phil Mickelson with local dancers during a photo call prior to the start of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Get set for the best year of Phil Mickelson’s life. That comes straight from the man himself.

“This 2014 season could be the best year of my career,” Mickelson announced on the eve of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

OK, let’s add some context before someone says the quote was taken out of context. The operative words obviously are “could be.” The season “could be” great because Lefty has a new bit of kit in his bag.

It’s a driver that he finally feels he can hit under pressure.

Mickelson traditionally has relied on his 3-wood to get the ball in the fairway because he’s never felt confident with a driver in his hand. He does now.

The five-time major winner says he’s looking forward to this season because the 9.5-degree Callaway Big Bertha Alpha driver that he is playing goes straighter than any other driver he has ever used, and he says it has provided an extra 25 yards off the tee. Previously when he hit driver, he claims he would get only “eight or 10 yards past” his 3-wood shot.

“As I look back on 2013, I played some of my best golf and had some huge breakthroughs," Mickelson said, "but I did most of it without a driver.”

“This year we have the best driver I’ve ever hit that lowers my spin rate like my 3-wood. I drive it longer and straighter with my driver than I did with my 3-wood. It’s a whole different weapon in my arsenal now."

Here comes the context: “If I drive the ball well, like I have been in practice and I have been in the off-season, heading into this 2014 season could be the best year of my career for that simple reason.”

Beating 2013 will be a tough task. One of the “breakthroughs” Mickelson talked about came at Muirfield, Scotland, when he won the Open Championship. Winning the U.S. Open would be about the only way he could top last year. It also would give him the career Grand Slam.

Mickelson’s travails in his national championship are well documented. He has had six U.S. Open runner-ups, including last year at Merion.

America’s national championship returns to Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort this June. Mickelson, 43, counts that venue, on Donald Ross' storied No. 2 course, as one of his six second-place finishes. He was runner-up to the late Payne Stewart in 1999. So the obvious question is this: Will victory at Pinehurst make 2014 a better season than 2013?

“I think (winning) any major championship would make the year special and memorable,” he said. “I do believe that I’ll win a U. S. Open. I don’t know if it’s at Pinehurst this year. It very well could be, or in the future. I play well in that tournament too often to not believe or be confident in my ability to close that tournament out.”

All eyes will be on him this week to see how the new driver performs under pressure, rather than just in practice. It could hold the key to Mickelson's joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the Grand Slam club.

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