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HUMBLE, Texas -- With the Masters to begin on April 11, no one wants to play better this week at the Shell Houston Open more than three-time green jacket winner Phil Mickelson.
Since taking his 41st career victory in February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the 42-year-old San Diego native has just one top-10, a tie for third at Doral. Last week at Bay Hill, he shot a 79 in the second round to miss his first cut of the year.
On Thursday, Mickelson shot an even-par 72 on the Tournament Course at the Redstone Golf Club. A winner here in 2011, the four-time major champion got his round off to a 4-under-par start before finding the water and making double-bogey on the dogleg left par-4 fifth hole, his 14th of the day. After that he made two bogeys coming in for a 3-over 39 for his inward nine holes.
"It was a disappointing finish," Mickelson said. "I kind of lost it there in the end, but the good thing for me is I know what I want to do. I know what I want to do in the golf swing and I hit some good shots earlier in the round.
"I feel really good with the putter, and I believe that as the tournament goes on, I'll be better."
The 11th-ranked player in the world, Mickelson is still a very formidable presence in the game. His win at Phoenix marked his 10th consecutive year with at least one win on tour. Last year, he had a tie for fourth in Houston. The next week, he had a T-3 at Augusta.
It's no accident that Mickelson has had three wins and 11 other top-10s in the Masters. Throughout his career, he has been remarkable at raising the level of his play around Augusta. Twenty-four of Mickelson's 41 wins have come before the year's first major.
Yet with all the buzz surrounding Tiger Woods heading into Masters, Mickelson might be able to start his week at Augusta National under the radar.
The lefty, who generally plays the week before the Masters, will not be in the field at the Valero Texas Open next week because he finds the windy and tight conditions at TPC San Antonio not conducive for his Masters preparation. So his performance this week is an important gauge of the state of his game and a chance for him to get some momentum headed into Augusta.
"It's a very unusual situation here for me," said Mickelson, who won his second green jacket in 2006, the week after taking the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. "I haven't taken a week off before the Masters in, I don't know, a couple of decades I think, and the same thing with the U.S. Open."
Mickelson, who didn't play a practice round before the start of this year's tournament in Houston, says he plans to use the week off now to prepare for Augusta.
As for the remainder of this tournament, Mickelson has to stay clear of the abundance of water here at Redstone that derailed his round Thursday if he wants a chance of contending on the weekend.
"There's so much trouble everywhere on this course that you've got to trust your swing, you've got to make good golf shots," he said.