PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- The enduring image of Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach is the one of him bent over, hands on knees, the ball sitting outside the cup on the 18th green, the tournament over.
The 5-footer he needed to force a playoff stayed out. The two great putts on the two previous holes to set up his chance offered little consolation. The victory that he so dearly wanted had to eluded him.
But as much as the putt stings -- "I still can't believe I missed it,'' he said Wednesday -- it does not linger.
"I see it more as a stepping stone,'' Mickelson said Wednesday during his pro-am round at PGA National, where the Honda Classic kicks off Thursday. "I'm playing better each week. I just want to continue that trend through the Florida swing and into the majors and the rest of the year. Whether I won or not, it's a stepping stone for where my game is going.
"And it's only my first month of tournament play. It's a nice trend.''
Mickelson, 45, saw a good opportunity squandered. So did Rory McIlroy on Sunday at the Northern Trust Open, where he was tied for the tournament lead after a first-hole eagle, then faltered to a surprising final-round 75.
But McIlroy, 26, was hardly lamenting his fate Wednesday, choosing to look on the positive side as he also begins his run-up to the Masters at his U.S. hometown event, where he has a victory (2012) and a runner-up finish (2014).
"I reflected a good bit about the round on Sunday night and on Monday,'' McIlroy said. "It was one of those things where -- I was 2-under early in the round to over par after seven (holes). So I felt from (No.) 7, I was chasing it. On that golf course, I made a decent par on 8. I had a good look on 9.
"And then I'm thinking, going on to the 10th tee, if I can make two birdies in these next two holes, get it back to 11 under for the tournament, I'm still right in there. Walking to 12 tee, instead of being 11 under, I'm 8 under and all I'm doing then is trying to go for pins and I started to short-side myself.
"The score probably got away from me because of that. So I didn't dwell on it too much because I knew that it was more the circumstances I put myself in, in the middle of the round, is why I sort of let it get away from me. I didn't think about it too much. I know my game is in good shape and it's there and hope to get into contention again this week.''
The tie for 20th was McIlroy's worst finish dating to the Frys.com Open last October. Since that time, he was in the top 10 on four occasions, including a victory at the European Tour's season-ending Dubai event as well as a tie for third in Abu Dhabi last month and a tie for sixth three weeks ago in Dubai. He is ranked third in the world behind Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.
Now McIlroy is back at a tournament where he's been up and down. He withdrew (infamously) in 2013 a year after his 2012 victory and then missed the cut last year after losing in a playoff in 2014.
Mickleson is playing at the Honda for the third year in a row and is on a nice run after switching swing coaches in the offseason, leaving Butch Harmon for Australian Andrew Getson.
The results -- three top-11 finishes and a missed cut -- have come faster than all expected, except Mickelson.
"I'd be more surprised if I were not doing this. The one surprise is one bad round this year at Torrey [Pines] North. That was the shock this year,'' Mickelson said of the second-round 76 last month during the Farmers Insurance Open. "That was more of a surprise.
"I'm starting to play and hit it with ease again. I'm hitting a multitude of shots with ease. Stress free. I see no reason why it shouldn't continue.''
He still thinks that putt at Pebble Beach should have dropped, though.
"It was easy,'' he said. "Left edge putt that I still can't believe. It just didn't break.''