Phil Mickelson is excited about the future. He’s stronger and fitter than at any point in his career, thanks to a dedicated training and diet regimen. He’s hitting the ball farther than ever. He’s hopeful.
The past, even one filled with 44 PGA Tour victories? The image isn’t entirely favorable.
“When I look back on some of the highlights of tournaments that I’ve won or played well in 15 years ago in my mid-30s, I mean, its embarrassing the way I looked,” Mickelson said Wednesday at PGA West, site of this week’s PGA Tour stop in La Quinta.
“So now I’ve taken a much greater level of accountability and I feel a lot better than I did 15 years ago. ... Can I get the best out of me again? I believe I can.”
For many journeymen on the PGA Tour, turning 50 means a second career on the PGA Tour Champions; they embrace the possibilities of new paydays and return trips to the leaderboard.
Mickelson isn’t among them. The host for a tournament now called the American Express, Mickelson turns 50 on June 16. His plan is to stick with the younger guns on the PGA Tour and leave the older guys — many of whom are contemporaries — alone for now.
“This is the best I’ve felt in years, maybe even decades,” he said. “And physically there’s nothing holding me back from playing some of my best golf. ... I think it’s going to be a great year.”
Not many players are betting against Mickelson. Zach Johnson has won 12 times in almost two decades of competing against him.
Would he be surprised to see Mickelson return to the form that led the left-hander to 21 wins from 2004 to 2013?
“No, it wouldn’t,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I hung out with him a lot yesterday, and he looks great. He’s worked out hard and worked on his golf hard. He’s one of the best golfers of our generation. He’s Phil Mickelson. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Mickelson finished tied for second here last year, a shot behind Adam Long when the tour rookie made an unlikely birdie playing alongside Mickelson on the final hole. Three weeks later, Mickelson won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am but struggled the rest of the season and failed to record another top-10 finish.
He is making his first start of the year in a tournament he has won twice. He said he expects to play 22 weeks on the regular tour this year.
“It’s nice to have the option to move over to another tour, but it’s also nice to have the challenge of competing out here,” he said. “And I don’t often voice too many goals, but one of them is to make the Ryder Cup.”
The biennial competition between Europe and the United States will be in September at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Mickelson said he wants to play his way onto the team; he isn’t interested in being one of Steve Stricker’s captain’s picks.
American Express has signed on as title sponsor of this event for five years, giving a tournament in its 61st year a stability it lacked a year ago when it was known as the Desert Classic, without a title sponsor. The first three rounds will be played at the La Quinta Country Club and the Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses at PGA West, with the final round Sunday on the Stadium Course.
In 2004, the last year Mickelson won this event, he averaged 295 yards off the tee, 30th on tour that season. In 2019, he averaged 306 yards, 19th on tour. And in the off-season, he’s added a low, more controlled tee shot to the high flight as well.
“When I stop hitting bombs, I’ll play the Champions Tour,” he said. “But I’m hitting some crazy bombs right now. ... There’s no reason that physically I can’t do today what I did 15, 20 years ago.”