Mickelson searching for first WGC victory

AKRON, Ohio -- Sometimes, it is easy to forget that Phil Mickelson was an accomplished, marquee player well before Tiger Woods became a pro. He even won a tournament here at the Firestone Country Club before Woods turned it into his personal stomping ground.

So with Woods sidelined until at least the end of the 2008 season, it has been noted with some frequency that this period presents a great opportunity for Mickelson -- the No. 2 player in the world -- to make some noise with no No. 1 to get in his way.

Whether Mickelson can take advantage of Woods' absence and fill the various holes on his résumé remains to be seen. This picturesque course in Ohio seemingly would be a good place to start, because although Woods has hoarded World Golf Championship events -- winning a whopping 15 of them since the concept began in 1999, including three in a row and six overall at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- Mickelson has nary a WGC trophy to boast about.

Mickelson opened the tournament Thursday with a 2-under-par 68 and followed that up with a 66 on Friday to stand a shot off Vijay Singh's 36-hole lead. The highlight of Mickelson's first round came on the par-4 18th, where he somehow punched a 4-iron from under the trees left of the fairway and onto the green from 169 yards. He then made a birdie putt.

"I didn't capitalize on some opportunities that I had and didn't make as many birdies as I would have liked," Mickelson said on Thursday. "But I hit a lot of good shots, drove the ball well and played aggressively throughout the day. When I did get in trouble on a couple of holes, I was able to get down and salvage par."

Mickelson has much to gain in the coming months.

"I am excited about the next eight weeks," said Mickelson, who joins Anthony Kim, Kenny Perry and Woods as the only players to win multiple times this year on the PGA Tour. "I mean, we have a great finish for the season, and I'm excited about it. I've got a newfound energy for the end of the season. I've been practicing hard. I love all these tournaments. I love the golf course here in Akron."

Mickelson, 38, won the old World Series of Golf at Firestone in 1996 on the same day that Woods, on the verge of turning pro, defeated Steve Scott in the final of the U.S. Amateur. It was Mickelson's ninth PGA Tour victory, and he was just 26.

Lefty has gone on to win 34 times on the PGA Tour, with three major victories. That is a Hall of Fame career by any measure, and there is no reason to believe he won't win many tournaments in the coming years.

But it is worth noting that Mickelson, who has never won a World Golf Championship event, also has never won a PGA Tour money title, has never been voted player of the year by his peers, and has never captured the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average.

With Woods on the mend from season-ending knee surgery after his U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines, all of those honors are in play -- not that Mickelson was willing to embrace the idea.

"I've got a lot of golf coming about," he said. "Those factors are the last factors on my mind."

Maybe so, but a huge opportunity awaits nonetheless. Whether or not Woods is around, it would be hard to fathom that Mickelson could end his career before boasting at least one or more of those achievements.

Let's start with money. Mickelson has won more than $49.3 million in his PGA Tour career alone, ranking behind only Woods ($82 million) and Singh ($56 million). But he's never won the money title, although he's finished second five times and third twice.

With at least five (and possibly six) more tournaments, including the no-cut WGC, Mickelson has a reasonable chance to snag his first money title. He is third behind Woods and Perry -- but still more than $1.6 million behind Tiger, despite playing 15 events to Woods' six.

Still, there is plenty of money available, with an $8 million purse up for grabs at Firestone and $7 million in each FedEx Cup event. This week's winner will bring home a cool $1.44 million while the champions of the FedEx Cup tournaments will rake in $1.26 million.

Mickelson's biggest problem there will be dealing with the highly motivated Perry, who leads him by slightly more than $400,000, and with those in close pursuit, such as Stewart Cink and Kim. All would love a money title, and they'll battle it out in the next several weeks to claim that crown.

The FedEx Cup might be an easier prize to attain than a money title -- and it certainly would be lucrative. Woods still leads that list as well, but it will be mathematically impossible for him to win the Cup without playing in any of the playoff events. Perry is next with 20,824 points, followed by Mickelson with 16,199. But that difference in points means little, as players have their points total reset at the Barclays, the first playoff event. The winner of the FedEx Cup gets a $10 million bonus.

And if he were to bank that kind of money, it might soothe his pain if he weren't voted player of the year. Unless Mickelson wins the PGA Championship next week and at least one of the FedEx Cup playoff events, it is hard to envision he -- or anyone -- would be voted player of the year instead of Woods.

As Jim Furyk cracked, "What's Tiger won? Four and a major? That's going to be tough to beat. What did he play in, three events?"

All kidding aside, Woods does make a strong case. All he has done is win the U.S. Open on one leg in a stirring playoff, capture three other tournaments and finish second and fifth in his six starts. You would think winning a major and the FedEx Cup title would be the minimum required to overtake Tiger in the voting.

Mickelson did have a great shot at the award back in '96, the last time he won at Firestone. That was his fourth victory of the year, and he was headed toward the money title when Tom Lehman -- who had won the British Open -- clipped him by a mere $80,000 on the season's final day when he won the Tour Championship. With a major and the season's money title, Lehman was voted player of the year.

Then there is the Vardon Trophy, an award named for legendary British golfer Harry Vardon, who won six Open Championships and has a grip named after him. The Vardon dates to 1937 and is given to the player with the year's lowest scoring average. Given Mickelson's propensity for birdies, it again comes as a bit of a surprise that he's never finished first here.

Heading into the Bridgestone, Mickelson ranked fourth with a 69.75 scoring average behind Perry (69.41), Luke Donald (69.58) and Kim (69.71).

It should be noted, however, that Mickelson has not typically been a strong finisher. Just eight of his 34 wins have come after the U.S. Open, although one was last year's Deutsche Bank Championship, a playoff event.

Mickelson says he's not worried about any of the talk about the hardware he hasn't earned. Long ago, Lefty adopted a good take on the constant attempts to compare him and Woods. He looked at the situation and simply noted that winning another 30 tournaments, and say, five major championships -- incredible feats -- would still leave him short of Woods, who has 65 PGA Tour titles and 14 majors.

Perhaps a season-ending flourish could bring him closer to an honor he's also never attained -- No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Woods will continue to lose points as he sits out. Though it will take some incredible play for Mickelson -- who trails 19.12 to 9.54 in average points -- to catch Woods, it is possible that No. 2 could become No. 1, even if by default.

Of course, Mickelson says that winning is all that is on his mind.

Ultimately, winning would take care of everything.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.