- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lefty’s return to competitive golf this week means all the game’s stars are aligned for the PGA Championship.

Optimistic that both his wife and mother have turned the corner in their respective battles against breast cancer, Phil Mickelson is using the Bridgestone Invitational to shake off six weeks of rust in preparation for next week’s final major of the season.

“I didn’t think I would be able to be here today. If you had asked me two months ago would I be able to play again in August, I didn’t think that that would be possible,” the 39-year-old Mickelson said. “But we’ve had some good things happen along the way, and I’m fortunate to be able to play.”

A two-time winner earlier this season, the world No. 2 hopes to play himself into competitive shape this week at Firestone. He used a start at the St. Jude Classic for the same purpose after a four-week layoff following his wife’s initial diagnosis in May. While Mickelson didn’t contend in Memphis, tying for 59th, the tuneup did result in a tie for second the following week in the U.S. Open at Bethpage. Though he has played sparingly over the past six weeks, Mickelson feels stronger emotionally than he did at Bethpage.

Though Mickelson declined to divulge specifics, he indicated that early detection and successful surgeries had left both his wife and mother with optimistic prognoses.

“I’m in a much better place than I was six weeks ago,” Mickelson said. “I just feel very fortunate to be where we’re at today. … We’ve been through some stuff, and we’ve had great things go our way. Again, this is going to be a long road, and it’s not something that you ever really get over with. It never really leaves you. You deal with it the rest of your life. But for today, we’re in a much better place.”

At Bethpage, Mickelson was able to channel his emotion, and a raucous outpouring of support from the galleries, into a inspired performance. There’s no question that Lefty will once again be the overwhelming crowd favorite in Minnesota.

But if neither rust nor his raw emotional state is likely to trip up Mickelson next week, the course itself is a different matter. Mickelson tied for 34th at Hazeltine in 2002, marking his worst finish at a PGA Championship this decade. Why? Perhaps because Hazeltine favors a left-to-right ball flight off most tees, and Mickelson has struggled to control a draw throughout his career.

Nobody is putting an uprising beyond the three-time major champion and 36-time winner on tour, but Hazeltine is far from a perfect course for Lefty. However, it would seem to be a very good track for Tiger Woods, who finished runner-up to Rich Beem by a stroke in 2002.

The 33-year-old Woods immediately responded to the doubts created by his missed cut at Turnberry by dropping the curtain on the Buick Open with his third title at Warwick Hills. While Woods didn’t play his best golf in Detroit, he proved once again that his B-game is often more potent than what most of his peers have to offer.

While the primary buzz heading into the PGA Championship will focus on Tiger’s 0-for-3 start in the majors, and the disparity between his play in regular tour events (four wins in seven stroke-play starts) and Slams this season, Woods claims he isn’t hauling any excess baggage to Hazeltine.

“You have to [put past results behind you],” Woods said. “That’s what golfers do. You win a golf tournament or you miss a cut. Either way, you gotta put it behind you because it doesn’t do a damn bit of good the next week. It’s a whole new tournament.”

After Tom Watson saved a British Open that would have been a weekend snoozer without his presence, it certainly would be nice to see a member of golf’s dynamic duo finish a major season of what-ifs with a trend-reversing flourish.

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