Augusta inspires Mickelson back to winning ways
When Phil Mickelson bogeyed the first two holes of his second round at the Houston Open, a weekend off to recharge the batteries ahead of his Masters defence looked a real possibility.
Ultimately that unwanted prospect was snuffed out and the cut was made comfortably enough, but there was little on his scorecard to suggest Mickelson was going to gain much more than a gentle weekend workout, his second round 70 having left him in a share of 33rd place; with his only birdies (and an eagle) coming on the Redstone Course's par fives.
But watching him go about his business, there was definitely something about his manner that indicated Mickelson magic might be ready to surface.
There was a bounce to his lope over the Houston fairways, suggesting he was excited by the thought of returning to what has become his spiritual golfing home, the Augusta National and this rejuvenation was manifested in sparkling closing rounds of 63 and 65 that brought him a thrilling three-shot victory.
Mickelson collects his trophy after winning the Houston Open - photo: Getty Images
Mickelson spent the start of last week at the home of the Masters and already it has proved time very well spent.
"It re-energises me every time I go there," the 40-year-old told me. "I get excited with the game and fall in love with it again and again. It reminds me how much I dreamt as a kid of playing there, of competing and winning majors and winning golf tournaments."
This Houston Open win was his 39th victory and now Mickelson heads back to Augusta seeking a fourth Masters title and a fifth major.
"Every time I walk the grounds now (at Augusta), having won there, I've looked back at some shots I've hit or some players in the past have hit. It creates an excitement level," he added.
Mickelson has climbed back to number three in the world and for the first time in fourteen years is above Tiger Woods in the rankings. The champion in Houston is convinced his win will not take too much from the tank and that he can repeat his feat of 2006 and claim back-to-back victories.
There is no doubting he is thrilled with the route he has taken to prepare for the first major of the year but for the man immediately above him in the rankings, Lee Westwood, the week in Texas was less productive.
The world number two cut a disconsolate figure after signing for a four-under-par 68 in his final competitive round before the Masters. Last year's runner-up at Augusta was not for hanging around to discuss his week.
"Should have been a 62 or 61 basically and that's about it," Westwood said. "My putting was atrocious, I couldn't make a putt to save my life. I missed four or five inside ten feet which ought to be gimmes on this quality of green."
Did he get out of this week what he had hoped for in preparation for the first major of the year? "No, not really," the world number two admitted.
Lee Westwood hopes to collect his first major title at Augusta - photo: Getty Images
Westwood's long game is in its usual fine fettle as he heads to Georgia. In the final round in Houston he hit 12 of 14 fairways from the tee and 15 greens in regulation and two of the three that missed found the fringe of the putting surface.
It is easy to see why he was so frustrated not to have posted a lower score. Westwood's challenge is to take the confidence of his driving and iron play and somehow infuse it into his putter in time to face the most demanding greens in the game.
The Englishman's vast experience at dealing with all that goes into a major, not just on the course, will be vital because before teeing off on Thursday he is sure to be asked repeatedly about his current weakness rather than the obvious strengths of his game.
Fortunately in recent years one of those qualities has been fortitude and resilience between the ears.
Having employed a new putter in Houston, Westwood is sure to be tempted to make another change as he seeks to go one better than last year and claim his first major title.
With a tie for eighth place Padraig Harrington was Europe's leading finisher in Houston. The Irishman always likes to play the week before a major and there were times when the he was fairly bubbling with confidence during a tournament in which he compiled four sub-par rounds.
Finishing at 11 under par, Harrington admitted a degree of frustration saying that he had been "tentative" at times, particularly in the wake of a third round that finished with three straight bogeys.
Even so the form curve is upward at the moment and there was plenty to suggest the three-time major winner can contend at Augusta if his putter warms up.
Other players to consider, if you believe playing the week before a major is a good idea, would include Steve Stricker, who finished tied fourth and Matt Kuchar who had rounds of 67 and 68 over the weekend to finish alongside Harrington.
Of course, their performances were all well and truly eclipsed by Mickelson and with this win in the bag, he heads to Augusta as a clear favourite, the man to beat and with an even bouncier spring to his step.