Phil Mickelson paints bleak picture

AKRON, Ohio -- For weeks, Phil Mickelson greeted every disappointment with a smile, every negative with a positive, every lackluster finish with the confidence that the next shot, next round, next tournament would put him on a path toward winning ways.

And why doubt him?

Sure, Mickelson hasn't had a top-10 finish all year on the PGA Tour, but there were moments, glimpses of the Lefty of old, and his own assurances that things were close.

Apparently, they are not, as Mickelson said in a pretty blunt assessment of his game Saturday.

"I've got a little work to do in my game," said Mickelson, who just Thursday said again that he felt he was close to putting it all together. "It's been a long time since I played well, and it's been more of a struggle than I thought it would be. I thought it would come back a little bit quicker. I really felt close at the British and Scottish [opens]. I thought it was going to click. And the first two rounds here were disappointing."

Asked whether he felt there was enough time to put things together, Mickelson said: "We'll see. It would be out of nowhere for me to play well. You just never know."

All of this came on a day when Mickelson broke par at Firestone Country Club for the first time this week -- and for just the third time in his past 14 rounds here -- but still found himself languishing in a tie for 44th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

As recently as two weeks ago, Mickelson felt good about his game despite not contending at the Open Championship, but a case of strep throat after the Open limited his practice time coming into the Bridgestone.

He opened the tournament with rounds of 71 and 73, and, instead of taking momentum to Valhalla and next week's PGA Championship, Mickelson all of a sudden is questioning himself.

"I really thought after the Scottish [where he tied for 11th] and British [T-24] that I was on to something," Mickelson said. "I didn't get a chance to work much the last week and a half. I didn't hit any drivers or 3-woods. I just hit short irons and stuff.

"But as I look back on my game right now, what has always been a strength for me is my short irons. I usually hit one or two to tap-in distance every round or make a lot of birdies. I've led the tour in birdies per round in total for a numbers of years.

"My short irons have been pathetic. I'm not hitting the ball close. I'm not making many birdies. I played pretty well today -- and made two birdies. That's just not going to cut it. I'm just not hitting my short irons close enough."

Mickelson, 44, whose most recent of 42 PGA Tour victories came at the 2013 Open Championship, was looking forward to this stretch of golf. At 10th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings, he very much hopes to make the team for the 10th time dating to 1995. Mickelson has never been a captain's pick.

In fact, going back to 1994, Mickelson has been part of every U.S. Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup team, needing a pick only that first year when captain Hale Irwin chose him for the Presidents Cup team. Mickelson was 24.

But he doesn't figure to gain much ground here with a lackluster finish, leaving only next week's PGA -- where the points are double -- to move into the top nine automatic places.

Captain Tom Watson will have three at-large selections on Sept. 2, and it's hard to imagine him not picking Mickelson, given Lefty's experience and stature. But there are no guarantees.

Aside from that, Mickelson wants to get his game in shape. He played in the PGA at Valhalla in 1996 and 2000 and was a big part of the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team there in 2008.

"I've always liked [Jack] Nicklaus courses," he said. "I've always played well on Nicklaus courses. Usually fairly generous fairways, greens that are blocked in front, which has been advantageous to me because I hit the ball high and get the ball to stop and spin it. I've always liked and enjoyed playing his courses. Valhalla is one of his better ones, I think, too. It's beautiful. I've played well there in the past."

Mickelson began the year ranked fourth in the world and has slipped to 13th. After finishing tied for second in Abu Dhabi on the European Tour, he has missed three cuts on the PGA Tour and hasn't really contended since the Wells Fargo Championship in May.

Lefty might be getting better physically, but apparently all the good, positive vibes of the recent past are gone.

"I'm definitely identifying a lot of weaknesses," he said. "I've got a lot of work to do to feel better."