Mickelson: 'Age is just a number'

SAN DIEGO -- Phil Mickelson paused for a moment when he considered what he had just said. Making his 27th appearance in his hometown PGA Tour event, a place where he came to watch the stars of his youth, Lefty wondered where all the time had gone.

He played in his first professional tournament at Torrey Pines when it was known as the Shearson Lehman Hutton Andy Williams Open. He was 17 years old in 1988 and Mickelson qualified for one of the amateur spots in the field.

Starting in 1991, he has never missed the tournament, winning it three times.

But Mickelson, 45, was not getting nostalgic. He was not yearning for days gone by, nor lamenting any diminishing skills. Not even close.

"There is nothing I can't do now that I could do when I was in my 30s," Mickelson said at Torrey Pines, where he opened what is now known as the Farmers Insurance Open with a 3-under-par 69 on the South course to trail tournament leaders Scott Brown and Andrew Loupe by 3 strokes.

In other words, Mickelson concedes nothing to age, even though he will be 46 in June and is competing with a slew of 20-something players who have infiltrated the top of the world rankings.

Sure, many things are different now. The singular focus that young golfers have is often replaced by other priorities, such as family and, especially in Mickelson's case, business. He doesn't practice as long, Mickelson said, but experience has taught him to get more out of his time hitting balls.

"I'm in better shape than I was five years ago. I eat better. I work out better. I feel better. I wake up and feel better," he said. "In my case, I feel like age is just a number."

This is clearly in contrast to the stories that surround Tiger Woods at this point. His 40th birthday last month was met with considerable skepticism about his ability to be an effective golfer in the future, with numerous surgeries -- the most recent another back procedure -- keeping him out indefinitely.

Mickelson flew through his 40th birthday nearly six years ago without any such discussion. Two months earlier, he had won the Masters. At 43, he won The Open, the last of his 42 PGA Tour titles to date.

Of course, there is that pesky little problem of his record over the past two years. Since winning at Muirfield in 2013, Mickelson has no professional victories. For the first time in his career, he has gone consecutive years without winning.

Until a tie for third last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Mickelson had not been so close to the top of a leaderboard since June.

"The problem I've had is my fundamentals in my golf game have not been allowing me to play the way I believe I can play," Mickelson said. "It's not an age thing. In fact it's the opposite. I've hit so many millions of golf balls over the years that there's never a shot I'll have to hit for the first time. All those shots I've hit in the past now should make it easier to play and perform at a higher level today."

And that led to an offseason coaching change, Mickelson deciding to move on from his longtime instructor, Butch Harmon. They had worked together since 2007, a time frame in which Mickelson won the Masters, The Open and the Players Championship and 13 tournaments worldwide.

Mickelson described the legendary instructor as "the best in the history of the game," but felt the problem was his own inability to take in what Harmon was telling him.

"I think we both thought that I wasn't as far off as I probably was and thinking it was a softer fix," Mickelson said. "I think Butch was probably saying the same things but I wasn't listening. After seven or eight years, maybe I just wasn't listening. I just needed to hear it from a different perspective."

Hence the switch last fall to Andrew Getson, an Australian teaching pro who is based at Greyhawk Golf Club in Arizona. The two began working together extensively, and Mickelson said he put in more time on his game in his three-month-plus offseason than he could remember.

Getson was with Mickelson all last week in Palm Springs, where he made 22 birdies, an eagle and just three bogeys. Mickelson was encouraged by the result, which game him confidence that he can continue to progress during a four-week stretch of tournament play that continues next week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and a week later at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

During Wednesday's pro-am at Torrey Pines, Getson followed along throughout the round, describing the changes to Mickelson's swing as small. But they clearly spent time analyzing and discussing shots, more so than Mickelson typically does during these casual rounds.

After hitting a nice tee shot on the sixth hole of Torrey's North course, Mickelson tried to explain further: "I knew that something was off and that I had to make some changes. I wasn't able to hit the same type of piercing ball flight that I've had in the past or control the irons. I wasn't able to hit that shot I just hit, a 6-foot cut. I haven't hit that in a while. My path was going this way, ball is going that way. It was just off."

Asked if there was any risk in making a change, Mickelson was quick to point out this is not a swing change or an overhaul. "I'm not doing something different or new," he said. "I'm trying to get back to what I did 10 years ago."

So far, it's working. Although Mickelson had an early double-bogey Thursday and wasn't particularly accurate off the tee, he made five birdies, including three in a row from the 13th to 15th holes. His statistics were not stellar, but Mickelson managed a decent score on the more difficult South course.

And yet, it's really about the big picture for Mickelson.

"Over the years I've been able to hit shots that other people can't hit and win golf tournaments at a clip second only to one," he said. "And all I want to do is get back to that."

There have been just five rounds to judge in 2016, but so far, Mickelson is off to a good start.