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With Tiger away, Phil on the prowl

                                                                                                                                                        Jan. 30, 2010
By John Davis                                                                                                                                             

SAN DIEGO                                                                                           

P hil Mickelson says the golf world needs Tiger Woods, but he’s not interested in "filling the void" created by the absence of the world’s top-ranked player.

Mickelson will make his 2010 debut Thursday in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

“Lefty,” who always has welcomed head-to-head match-ups with Woods, said he plans to limit his comments about Tiger, who has taken an indefinite leave from golf after crashing his SUV on Thanksgiving and later admitting “infidelity” relative to his wife, Elin.

“The game of golf needs him to come back,” Mickelson said. “It’s important for him to come back and be part of the sport. But right now he’s got a lot more important things going on in his life.

“(Mickelson’s wife) Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin, and we care deeply about how this turns out. But I’m going to choose not to talk about it publicly anymore, and I appreciate your understanding on that … I feel like it's a violation of our trust and our relationship."

With or without Woods in the game, Mickelson might be the player to beat coming off an impressive finish to the 2009 season.

After taking six weeks off when Amy and Mickelson’s mother, Mary, were dealing with breast cancer, he made a sluggish return to competition, then got on a roll to end the year.

With a final-round 65, he erased a 4-shot deficit and won by 3 shots in the Tour Championship, with Woods finishing second. Then, Mickelson won the World Golf Championships-HSBC Championship in Shanghai, holding off a charging Ernie Els.

The key to that success was a dazzling display of putting after working with putting guru Dave Stockton. Making it even more impressive is that Mickelson already was using V-groove clubs now required by the PGA Tour instead of the U-shaped grooves that most players were using for increased spin on their iron shots.

“He has really been working hard. Now his putting is coming around,” Els said during this month’s Sony Open. “Even when Tiger stopped playing – even if you ask Tiger – I think Phil got right to his level. I think there is a new guy we’ve got to chase.”

Woods has carried the tour on his dominating shoulders the past decade, and it would love for Mickelson to carry that torch in Tiger’s absence, but “Lefty” said he isn’t concerned about filling a void.

Instead, he is eager to pick up where he left off.

“I haven’t looked at it from that point of view, but nobody will be able to fill the shoes that are voided right now,” Mickelson said. “But this game still has a lot to offer and I’m excited to get back into competition and be a part of it.

“I’ve had some great head-to-head success the last year or two, and I expect this year, with or without him, to be one of the best years of my career.”