Napa, California: Phil Mickelson rarely has sounded so excited to start a new PGA Tour season, even with the old season ending just three weeks ago.
Then again, he doesn’t have a lot of experience winning the Ryder Cup.
Still gushing over the US victory two weeks ago at Hazeltine, Mickelson gets one last chance to win something for himself at the Safeway Open. It’s the first event in the 2016-17 season. It’s also the last event of the year for the 46-year-old Mickelson.
“I’m still on an emotional high, and even though I’ve been running around this last week, my energy level is up and I’m optimistic about having a good week,” Mickelson said. “I love the golf course and the feel. It’s in California and I’m excited to play.”
The excitement was tempered earlier in the week when Tiger Woods withdrew.
Woods had said a month ago he planned to play at Silverado and officially entered the tournament on Friday. The tour decided to put Woods and Mickelson in the same group, along with defending champion Emiliano Grillo, for the opening two rounds.
And then Woods said his game was “vulnerable” and not where it needed to be for him to return to the PGA Tour for the first time in 14 months. Mickelson and Woods had not played together since the opening round of the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Woods was replaced in the group by Bill Haas.
Mickelson said he has texted Woods a few times, though he understands the decision.
“We all want Tiger to come back, but we want him to come back when he’s ready,” Mickelson said. “If he doesn’t feel like he’s ready, then he should wait. We’ll all wait in anticipation and we’re excited, but I understand there’s a lot of pressure not just to come back but to perform when he does come back. So you want to make sure that your game is right because look at how much scrutiny he’s going to be under.”
Mickelson playing is rare occurrence, too.
This is the first time he has played a domestic PGA Tour event in the fall since the FedEx Cup began in 2007, which moved the Tour Championship from the last week in October to the end of September. Mickelson also was on the task force that chose not to award Ryder Cup points to this tournament or the others in the fall, arguing that it would give the “bottom half of the tour” a head start in the standings.
Safeway is in its first year as the title sponsor, and Mickelson’s management company runs the tournament.
Mickelson is among only four of the top 25 in the world ranking at Silverado, joining Paul Casey, Matt Kuchar and Grillo. The star power Wednesday came in the pro-am, where Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry played with Harold Varner III, who also was raised in North Carolina. Curry was supposed to play with Woods.
“I wouldn’t call it disappointment because obviously that’s a huge opportunity just to begin with,” Curry said. “We’ll be happy to have him back whenever that time is. It’s unfortunate that he’s not here, but I’ll be watching whatever tournament he does come back.”
Mickelson had one of his best years without winning. He finished No. 12 on the money list and went over $4 million for the first time since 2013, the year of his most recent victory at the British Open. He ended last year at No. 34 in the world and now is up to No. 15.
He even challenged to win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average until falling too far back over the last three tournaments of the season.
But he’s still lacking a victory.
The Ryder Cup helped to feel that void, mainly because of how much Mickelson had invested in it. He was the catalyst for change when he publicly challenged the captaincy of Tom Watson in 2014, which led to the task force and significant changes to the US model. Lefty backed it up on the golf course, going 2-1-1 for the week and finishing with a 10-birdie round that earned a half-point against Sergio Garcia.
Mickelson raved about the performance of the entire US team, and had to be reminded that he performed better than anyone on the final day.
“I played some of my best golf, too, because when you feel that kind of support and you play for a bigger purpose, it brings out some of your best golf,” Mickelson said. “I was certainly a beneficiary of it, as well.”
Now he’s back on his own, though it was clear the Ryder Cup was enough to carry him into the off-season.