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Lefty expects career year in 2010

SAN DIEGO -- The burden is substantial, probably far heavier than anyone could reasonably be asked to bear. In his absence, nobody could be expected to make us forget about Tiger Woods.

But Phil Mickelson, at least, is the best bet to step into the gaping hole created by Woods and give golf fans something else to talk about.

Not that Lefty necessarily relishes that role, but as the No. 2 player to Woods' No. 1, as a longtime rival to the game's best player, as one who has his own high goals and aspirations while coming off a personally trying yet ultimately successful year, Mickelson finds himself in that position as his 2010 season commences.

The game could use a ray of sunshine after the storm clouds produced by Woods over the past two months, and Mickelson is unquestionably the player with the most ability to deliver.

"I haven't thought about it like that," Mickelson said Wednesday at Torrey Pines, where he begins play Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open. "I'm just excited to play golf. I'm excited to get back into competition and be a part of this. Again, I haven't really looked at it from that point of view, but nobody will be able to fill the shoes that are voided right now."

Mickelson expressed his hope that Woods would return from his "indefinite" leave from the game because "the game of golf needs him to come back."

In the meantime, however, the game needs Mickelson to get off to a hot start in 2010.

Throughout their battles over the years, Woods has been the better player than Mickelson. But you would get a healthy argument about who is more popular.

And with Woods gone, Mickelson has an excellent opportunity to aspire to a few goals which he has, remarkably, never attained.

Despite 37 PGA Tour victories including three major championships, Mickelson, 39, has never won a PGA Tour money title, never been voted player of the year, never ascended to the No. 1 ranking.

"Well, my whole career I've been trying to get to No. 1, I just haven't had much success," said Mickelson, who has won this tournament at Torrey Pines three times, the last in 2001. "But this year, whether or not Tiger is in the field, I still believe that this is an opportunity for me to compete in majors, to challenge him.

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

Before Woods' troubles began in November, this was shaping up to be an interesting year for the two players. Woods won six times last year and another tournament in Australia, but Mickelson -- despite breast cancer diagnoses for his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary -- had one of his best seasons.

He won three times on the PGA Tour, including his first World Golf Championship event at Doral. He finished ahead of Woods at both the Masters and U.S. Open, then defeated him at the Tour Championship and the unofficial WGC-HSBC Champions in China.

The last seven times Mickelson and Woods were in the same group, Lefty shot the lower round five times and tied Woods once.

"I think he's going to be even better," said Mickelson's swing coach Butch Harmon, who worked with his star pupil two weeks ago for two days in San Diego. "Physically he got his body in shape. And with the work he's done swingwise … I was very happy with what I saw.

"He's extremely anxious to get going. This could be his best year ever and he's looking forward to it. Sure, it puts pressure on him, but I haven't seen him this excited to start the year."

Much of that enthusiasm goes back to putting issues he solved last fall with the help of two-time major champion and former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton.

At the urging of Mickelson's longtime caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson hooked up with Stockton in San Diego and had immediate results.

"Through various little things I kind of asked him about, you could see him smile because it brought back things he did as a kid," Stockton said. "You could see the line he wanted the ball to go on. He set his feet wider in his stance. He knew where it was going."

Mickelson worked more with Stockton in the offseason, as well as with short-game guru Dave Pelz.

"My feel and touch on the greens, my seeing of the line and my roll of the golf ball is much better than it's been in years," Mickelson said.

It is easy to forget that Mickelson was an accomplished, popular player before Woods even turned pro. His ninth PGA Tour title came on the same day in 1996 that Woods won his third and final U.S. Amateur. A few days later, Woods turned pro, and golf has never been the same.

But as Mickelson's 40th birthday approaches in June, he figured to be a force this year no matter what happened to Woods.

"The way Phil Mickelson played at the end of last year … the way he is hitting the ball … Phil is hitting it as long or longer than anybody out there," said Ernie Els, who is in the field this week in San Diego. "He has really been working hard. Now his putting is coming around. I think Phil is probably the man to beat now.

"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."

For now, at least, golf needs Mickelson to be that guy.

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