Mixed feelings for Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines

January 28, 2016

The best thing about Phil Mickelson playing at Torrey Pines is that it's his hometown event on the PGA Tour, and he is treated accordingly.

These days, that might be the only thing that appeals to him.

Yes, Mickelson is a three-time winner of what is now called the Farmers Insurance Open. But the last of those three victories was 15 years ago, before Rees Jones got his hands on the South Course at Torrey Pines to bulk it up for the U.S. Open.

Mickelson has had only one close call since then. That was in 2012, when he needed to hole out with a wedge from 72 yards for eagle on the par-5 18th hole to force a playoff. He had his caddie tend the pin. He just missed.

If his recent history on the South Course isn't bad enough, Mickelson lost out on his bid to redesign the North Course last fall.

Mickelson was so excited about the design last year during the tournament that he eagerly showed his plans during the pro-am. He wanted to bring the aesthetics of the canyon into play and make the course more enjoyable for amateurs and a strong test for the pros.

But he fell victim to a quirky decision by the California Fair Political Practices, which said that anyone who worked on preliminary designs could not take part in the design or the construction based on the bid for the contract.

''It's certainly disappointing for me, but I understand the politics of it all,'' he said Wednesday. ''Actually, I don't understand the politics of it all. It makes no sense. I think it's terrible business practices, but it's what we live with here. I'm not bitter about it. I just kind of learned to accept that as being one of the sacrifices of living in California.''

Ultimately, the project went to Tom Weiskopf, who is at Torrey Pines this week. Work on the North Course, used for the opening two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open, will start next week. Weiskopf said he hasn't talked to Mickelson.

''I was quite surprised that Phil wasn't chosen, to tell you the truth,'' he said. ''It made all the sense in the world.''

So now Mickelson is left to play a tournament on one course that has been changed to his dislike, and another course where he had great plans that fizzled in politics.

But it's still Torrey Pines. It's still home.

''I'm always excited to be back at Torrey Pines,'' he said. ''I love the place here, and it's a special place to me, and I'm excited to compete again.''

This figures to be an early barometer of his 25th year on the PGA Tour.

Mickelson hasn't won since the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, and he didn't contend in any tournament since the St. Jude Classic last June. But after taking nearly four months off and working with a new swing coach, he began 2016 with a bogey-free weekend and a tie for third in the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Whatever happens at Torrey Pines certainly won't indicate what kind of year he can expect. Even so, this is an important step given the nature of the courses. The rough on the North Course is thick enough that players couldn't see their golf balls from a few paces away in some spots.

And the South Course, already a brute, also has ample rough.

''It's an ideal tournament for me to start driving the ball well because it's such a demanding ball-striking golf course that it feels great to be able to go there and really put it to the test,'' Mickelson said.

The field is plenty strong even with world No. 1 Jordan Spieth playing in the Singapore Open and Rory McIlroy still three weeks away from making his U.S. debut this year. The defending champion is Jason Day, though his week was put in doubt when the PGA champion withdrew from the pro-am with the flu.

Rickie Fowler, who grew up an hour away, traveled the longest to get to Torrey Pines.

He won the Abu Dhabi Championship on Sunday for his fourth victory worldwide in the last eight months, then arrived in San Diego on Monday morning in time to host a junior clinic. Fowler started the year with a fifth-place finish at Kapalua and the victory in Abu Dhabi.

''After having two nice weeks to start the year ... put me in a mindset of I'm able to be a little bit more aggressive and play a little bit more offensively, instead of trying to just get things going at the beginning of the season,'' he said. ''Right now, I'm looking forward to each week and getting back in the hunt and ultimately, to continue to do what I did last week.''