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Playoff loss will help down the road

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- On Sunday, Phil Mickelson stepped on to the first tee at Riviera Country Club to loud applause. The voices of children and adults sang, "We love you Phil. We love you. Go get 'em."

The Northern Trust Open was his tournament to win. It was the will of the fans. The 41-year-old San Diego native was looking for his 41st win and third in this tournament. A victory would have vaulted him to fifth in the world ranking, another step closer to finally achieving No. 1.

Three-putts at the 14th and 15th holes had placed his hopes of a second straight win in doubt, but a 27-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole got him into a playoff with Bill Haas and Keegan Bradley. The dream was still alive, until Haas sunk a 43-foot putt to win on the second playoff hole at the short, par-4 10th hole.

There was polite applause for Haas' monster putt, but it wasn't a Phil applause. The wrong guy had won. Haas wasn't even on the marquee. Mickelson had shared top billing with his mentee, Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner. It was supposed to be a battle between the two good friends.

All week, Phil had been the focus of attention. His win at Pebble Beach had made him the favorite to win here at Riviera. He commuted from his home in the San Diego area every day by private plane. At times he couldn't wait to get home to his four-acre, short-game facility behind his house.

Mickelson had held the lead for most of the week until Sunday evening, when he had trouble finding a leaderboard on the golf course. The pressure was real for the players on an unforgiving layout.

At Pebble Beach, his great putting on Sunday had separated him from the field. But on this Sunday he struggled with the bumpy poa annua greens. Nothing thwarts self-confidence like having uncertainty on the putting surface.

"I was very tentative on the greens today," Mickelson said. "I wasn't trying to be. I was trying to knock them in, but they just weren't as fast as I was perceiving them to be.

"That last putt [to get into the playoff] was one I just gave it a good aggressive roll and it went right in the middle."

Though Mickelson must be disappointed about not winning on Sunday, he has to be excited about his game. He was able to stay in the tournament by playing Phil ball. He didn't hit every fairway or green. He was far from perfection and he didn't have Tiger Woods to motivate him to play well.

Riviera was a very tough test of golf. He could have had career rounds and not come close to the 17 under par that he shot last week at Pebble Beach.

"[Riviera] was very defensive because the greens were so firm, the pins were tough, and although there was no rough, it had a kind of a U.S. Open feel," Mickelson said.

For a guy focused on winning majors, playing well on a U.S. Open-caliber setup must do wonders for his confidence. Sure, he'll see different conditions at Augusta, where the bentgrass greens are as true as any putting surfaces in championship golf. But the pressure brought on by the conditions at Riviera made Phil bear down in a way that he will draw on in the next two months as he tries to win his fourth green jacket.

Mickelson might have disappointed his fans, but this loss should prove very beneficial down the road. Even veterans like him can still learn new lessons on tour. Yet he is still playing better than anybody in the world and right now, that must be of some comfort to his legions of fans.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.