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Thursday, February 16, 2012
Might Phil Mickelson rise to No. 1?

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- For years, Phil Mickelson has played Phil ball: He plays to win at all costs. He's not trying to make a check or get a top-10 finish to get world ranking points. Heck, most of the time he's not even thinking about making the cut. There probably are only a few weeks a year when he's not thinking about birdieing every hole. He is sometimes criticized for not playing safer, but he has always been a gambler.

"I'm going to try to make birdies, I'm going to play aggressive," Mickelson said on Wednesday. "And when I'm playing well, I make birdies and end up either in contention or winning, and when I don't have it, my mistakes are going to be big."

I have never heard a player better sum up his career and approach to the game. Phil takes the good with the bad because all of it comes out of a deep desire to win.

On Thursday in the first round of the Northern Trust Open, Mickelson shot a 5-under-par 66 to take the clubhouse first-round lead. He has a 1-shot lead over J.B. Holmes and Hunter Mahan. Mickelson had six birdies and a bogey on a beautiful but windswept day at the Riviera Country Club. Mickelson, Holmes and Mahan all played in the afternoon, when winds were calmer than they had been in the morning.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson the front-runner? The last five times Lefty led a PGA Tour event after 18 holes, he went on to capture the title.

Luke Donald, who played in the morning wave, had a 1-under-par 70.

When play was called at 5:42 local time, 30 players were still on the course. The first round will resume Friday morning.

"It was challenging today because Riviera doesn't give you great opportunities to run balls onto the green," Mickelson said. "Fortunately the greens were somewhat receptive, and that's why I think scores weren't extremely high.

"You could keep the ball underneath the wind, underneath the tree line and still get it to stop somewhat on the greens because they were receptive."

This was the best round for Holmes since he came back from brain surgery last September. No course is generally overly long for the 29-year-old, a two-time PGA Tour winner, but the howling 20-25 mph winds stretched out Riviera.

"The wind definitely made the course a lot longer," Holmes said. "When it blows like this your ballstriking has to be really precise.

"I'm not all back but it's close enough. I can dial it up. My swing speed is creeping back up to where it was last year. I felt real confident today. I didn't really let the bogeys bother me."

Mickelson didn't have a bogey in his first round until the par-3 16th hole, where he couldn't get up and down from the back fringe.

In December, we might look back on that final-round 64 at Pebble Beach on Sunday as the beginning of a special year for the 41-year-old San Diego native. Although much of the attention coming into the season centered around what would Tiger do, Phil is upstaging him with his revival. It's not as if Mickelson had a horrible 2011 -- he had a win and seven top-10s, including a T-2 at the British Open -- but by the end of last year no one was really talking about him. He wasn't No. 1 in the world and his name wasn't Tiger Woods.

Donald, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and a slew of other good, young players have been getting all the attention. Even with his three wins since June, 44-year-old Steve Stricker almost always operates under the radar.

Still, most of us were waiting to see how Mickelson would play at the beginning of the season. He was admittedly concerned that he wasn't seeing the results in competition that he'd witnessed in his practice sessions. It seems that once you hit 40, pundits begin counting the days until you hit the Champions Tour.

"To come back and play the way I know I can play Sunday when I needed it most at Pebble, it gets my confidence right back to where I was starting the season," Mickelson said after his round Thursday, which ended shortly before dark.

We would expect a couple of weeks like this out of Johnson or Donald, but not Phil. But clearly he is still a top-10 player in the world. If he stays healthy, he could compete for major championships into his early 50s.

Mickelson has never been No. 1 in the world. When he started 2012 at 15th in the world rankings, few would have given him much chance to reach the top spot by the end of the year. But if he can keep winning, he could finally gain one of the few honors that he doesn't own in his illustrious career.

With 54 holes left at the Northern Trust Open, Mickelson still has a lot of golf to play this week, but he's going to be tough to beat come Sunday afternoon.

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