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Through three starts this year, Phil Mickelson looks to be positioning himself for a remarkable 2011.
Mickelson has just one round worse than par out of 12 this year and has broken 70 eight times. His scoring average of 68.40 is first on tour in the young season and he's just 0.29 average points behind Tiger Woods for third in the Official World Golf Ranking.
This kind of start isn't unprecedented for Phil: it's the seventh time since 1995 that he has had either two or three top-10 finishes in his first three PGA Tour starts of the year. As you might expect, this bodes well for how he fares at Augusta: The two years Phil finished in the top-10 in each of his first three starts (2004 and 2006), he won the Masters.
The last time he did it was 2008. Mickelson went on to finish tied for fifth that year at Augusta National. In 2003, it meant a third place finish, as it did in 1996.
Last weekend, a few of the commentators during the broadcast remarked about Mickelson's current PGA Tour schedule. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was his third straight start. Lefty will also be teeing it up this weekend at Riviera and has said he will play the WGC-Accenture Match Play the following week, giving him five straight weeks of competition on tour.
This five-week run seems like an oddity at first glance, especially for a player of Phil's magnitude. The most consecutive weeks Mickelson played on tour last year was three. However, this really is not anything new for Lefty, and a pretty remarkable trend emerges when you dive into his personal successes and the specifics of playing this many times in a row.
In 2009, Mickelson played a similar schedule -- five straight starts from the then-named FBR Open through the Match Play. The fourth in that string of starts (like he'll be making this week) came at the Northern Trust. Phil's finish: win.
In 2008, Mickelson did just the same thing, making five straight starts from Torrey Pines through the Match Play. The fourth in that string of starts (once again, as he'll be making this week) was at the Northern Trust. Phil won that week, too.
In 2007, Mickelson played in six straight PGA Tour events, from the Bob Hope through the Match Play. The fourth in that string of starts was Pebble Beach. Phil won that week. The fourth time's the charm, apparently.
Does this mean Mickelson is a lock this week at Riviera? Of course not. But it does offer some perspective regarding Mickelson's penchant for playing a busy schedule at the beginning of the year -- a string that takes the tour through Phil's native California and his former home, Arizona.
Mickelson has had great success at Riviera, especially in recent years. Lefty has a win or second-place finish in three of the last four years (he finished T-45 at Riviera last year). Twelve of his last 16 rounds in the event have been at par or better, and six times in the last four years Lefty has fired a 66 or lower. That includes a winning year in 2009 -- when he shot an opening 63 and a 62 on Saturday.
Speaking of hot starts, your defending champion this week is world No. 8 Steve Stricker. Stricker makes his first start stateside since his venture to the Middle East a few weeks ago for the Qatar Masters. Though that event didn't finish as well as he would have liked (T-45), Stricker went T-4, T-9 for the Hawaii swing -- shooting all eight rounds better than par in the process.
Stricker has five wins since the beginning of 2009 on the PGA Tour. That's more on this circuit in that span than Mickelson (4), Jim Furyk (3) and Ernie Els (2) and as many as the European contingent of the current world top-10 combined (Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald). Granted, the Euros play predominantly on the other side of the ocean, but it does give some perspective on how successful Stricker has been over the last couple years.
In fact, the only player with more PGA Tour wins since the beginning of 2009 is Tiger Woods, who won six times in '09. Remember when Woods unstoppable and No. 1 in the world?
In addition to that, Stricker also holds the tour's longest active cuts made streak with 25 -- the last time he failed to make a 36-hole cut was at the 2009 PGA Championship.
Three On The Tee: Three things about players in this week's field that you didn't previously know. It's information that will undoubtedly change your life.
Question: Jhonattan Vegas makes his first career start at the Northern Trust Open this week. Vegas won in his third event of the year, the earliest by a rookie since 2001. What rookie won in his second event that year?
Answer: Garrett Willis, who won the Touchstone Energy Tucson Open in his second event of 2001.
Dustin Johnson: DJ missed on his bid to three-peat at Pebble last week, but he's got all year to accomplish something that hasn't been done on the PGA Tour in a long time. With a win in 2011, Johnson will have won in four consecutive years coming out of college. The last player to do that? Tiger Woods, who did it from 1996 to 1999. Johnson has improved every year in this event: a T-59 in 2008, a T-10 in 2009 and a tie for third a year ago.
Mark Wilson: The FedExCup standings leader has won twice this year through five events. That's the fastest anyone on tour has won twice in eight years. In 2003, Ernie Els won both legs of the Hawaii swing, the Mercedes Championships and the Sony Open in a playoff.
Ryo Ishikawa: At 19 years old and ranked 40th in the world, Ishikawa makes his third straight start at Riviera this week, thanks to a commissioner's exemption. He has yet to finish inside the top-10 in a PGA Tour stroke-play event but has been in a good place entering the weekend at this particular event: last year, Ryo was tied for fourth entering the weekend.
Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.