Commentary

Five things we learned this week in golf

Updated: February 14, 2012, 1:20 AM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

At the beginning of the week, I chose Phil Mickelson as my super sleeper in my experts' picks for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am because I felt that the hard work on his game would finally pay off at Pebble. The pro-am was his fourth tournament in a row.

Mickelson had started his 2012 season at the Humana Challenge in Palm Springs, Calif., where he tried to peel the rust off his game. A week later, he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open after a first-round 77. In Phoenix, he looked great for three rounds before a final-round 1-over 73.

Instead of returning home to sulk with Butch Harmon, Mickelson continued to play. Sure, Lefty recently has worked with Harmon and his putting coach, David Stockton, but it was the competition that prepared him to earn his 40th career win, and fourth Pebble Beach pro-am win, on Sunday.

The range might give you confidence in your swing, but the best confidence comes with playing well in competition. Mickelson proved that axiom in his performance this past week in Pebble Beach, where he started the final round 6 shots back of third-round leader Charlie Wi.

Before Mickelson takes off the week of the Accenture Match Play to spend time with his family, he will head to L.A. to play the Northern Trust Open, his fifth tournament in a row. He won't carry out this dizzying schedule for the rest of the year, but he'll look back on this sometimes-difficult stretch as the one that set his course.

Looking for help in all the wrong places

Mickelson was paired with Tiger Woods on Sunday. The two Southern Californians have never built the rivalry that was destined when Tiger joined the PGA Tour in 1996. Still, their names have been closely linked as the top two American players in the world in the past 15 years. As Tiger has raised the bar of excellence in the game, Lefty has tried to keep pace with a deepening passion for majors preparation, physical fitness and swing and mental instruction. In turn, Tiger has deepened his resolve to keep improving; he's made a few good instructors famous by constantly letting them tinker with his swing.

It's not useful to compare the careers of Mickelson and Woods in terms of wins and majors. It's unlikely that any player in our lifetime will come close to Tiger's accomplishments. But we can talk about where each player is at this point in his career.

At 41 years old, Mickelson is 5 years older than Woods, but they aren't that far apart in golf years. Their biggest gap is in maturity, where Lefty outpaces Tiger by a wide margin.

Tiger's putting woes on Sunday were symptomatic of a basic mental weakness in his game. He's not missing putts because of his putting stroke or the condition of the greens, because at his level, it's all in his head.

Mickelson understands this, and that's why he began working last year with Julie Elion, a Washington, D.C.-based mental coach. Throughout most of their careers, Tiger might have been a stronger mental player, but at this point, Lefty might have the superior mind.

The pro-am was just one tournament and is hardly an indication that Mickelson will have a better year than Tiger, but Tiger shouldn't do what has become natural to him, which is to seek out some mechanical fix that might help him putt better. Sure, he could do some things differently, particularly some of those little, short putts that he hit too firmly on Sunday. I'm sure he has no plans to ask Nike to build him a belly putter, especially after he criticized the putter early in the week.

Meanwhile, Mickelson was emotional after the win because he hadn't been getting desired results in competition, and Sunday's final round was confirmation that his hard work was not in vain. In his postmatch interview, he gave us a glimpse of the introspective and vulnerable Phil.

"I've had some doubt these last couple of weeks, given the scores that I've shot, yet on the practice range, playing and practicing, having these great practice sessions, I started to wonder if I'm going to be able to bring it to the golf course," Mickelson said. "So this gives me a lot of confidence and erases the doubt."

A good mental coach could help Tiger acknowledge some of the growing doubt in his game. He might finally realize that he's looking for help in all the wrong places.

LPGA launches 2012 season Down Under

For the past several years, the LPGA Tour has been struggling through a tough economy that has threatened its future. Twelve years after a high of 43 events in 1999, the game's top women's tour had just 24 events in 2011. And although the LPGA is based in Daytona Beach, Fla., only 11 events were held in the United States last year.

On the PGA Tour, you could play 40 times a year without leaving the U.S. If you're an LPGA Tour member, you'd better have a passport. But things are looking up for the LPGA Tour this year. It lost only one tournament from last year and added five new events. The ladies got their season started this past week at the inaugural Women's Australian Open, one of 13 international events on the 2012 schedule.

Jessica Korda, the 18-year-old daughter of former tennis star Petr Korda, won a six-player playoff on the second extra hole with a birdie on Royal Melbourne Golf Club's 18th hole. Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open winner, is from the Czech Republic, but he raised his daughter as an American in Florida. Stacy Lewis and Brittany Lincicome, two other promising young American players, were also in the playoff.

For years, the LPGA Tour has been looking for a Tiger-sized player to draw fans to the women's game. Its dominant players of the past decade -- Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Yani Tseng -- haven't been able to attract sponsors or fans to the sport. Michelle Wie was supposed to be that player, but so far she hasn't lived up to her potential. Tseng's seven wins last year established her dominance, but she is from Taiwan, further cementing the LPGA's future in Asia.

Mike Whan, the LPGA Tour commissioner since 2010, has done a good job of righting the ship after his predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, alienated some players and sponsors with her inexperience in the golf industry. Still, Whan has one of the most difficult jobs in golf. It's never been easy to market women's professional sports, even during good economic times.

A dominant American like Wie, Lincicome, Paula Creamer, Lexi Thompson or Lewis might do wonders for the future prospects of the LPGA Tour, but it's likelier that the tour will stay viable by increasing its international reach and promoting players regardless of their nationality.

Pavin makes mark on senior circuit

Few players have been as successful on the PGA Tour with less natural ability than 15-time winner and U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin. It's probably not fair to call a man who has won that many times an overachiever, but it's safe to say that most of his success didn't come easily.

In Pavin's prime during the 1980s and '90s, he was one of the shortest hitters on tour, and his ballstriking was never superior. But he was one of the best scramblers of his generation. That spectacular 4-wood at Shinnecock on the 72nd hole of the 1996 U.S. Open was a shot that only a diminutive Pavin could have hit.

Even the no-cut Champions Tour seemed like a great challenge for Pavin when he began playing out there in 2010. Not since the days of persimmon has the Champions Tour been a paradise for short hitters. But in his first year on that tour, Pavin had eight top-10s in 15 events, including two seconds. In 2011, he had nine top-10s in 18 events.

With a 256.2-yard driving-distance average, the 52-year-old former UCLA star is still near the bottom of the Champions Tour in that category, but he hasn't lost the touch or shot-making ability that made him one of the most consistent winners of his era.

Pavin finally earned his first Champions Tour win on Sunday at the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla. He beat Peter Senior with a par on the first playoff hole after both finished regulation play at 11 under.

Pavin was lucky to be in the winner's circle at the end of the day. Mark Calcavecchia had a 3-shot lead over his nearest competitors with seven holes left to play, but he bogeyed six of his last seven holes to finish in a tie for seventh.

Still that's always been Pavin's scrappy way of hanging around an event. He's never been the player everyone expected to win because he never looked the part. On Sunday, he proved again that he still has a formidable game and Hall of Fame-caliber toughness.

The lead? No thanks

For the third week in a row on the PGA Tour, a player gave up a big lead on Sunday. Kyle Stanley made some of us want to cry in San Diego. Then he overtook a nervous Spencer Levin last week in Phoenix. On Sunday, it was Charlie Wi, a 40-year-old Californian looking for his first PGA Tour win.

Wi, who might be best known inside the golf universe for being a successful proponent of the stack-and-tilt swing, four-putted his first hole. After that, he was in an uphill battle, as Mickelson eventually overtook the leaderboard with a final-round 64.

A lead is always fragile on the PGA Tour. But what does it take to keep one? Wi has been in contention on Sunday many times in his seven years on the PGA Tour. Stanley had a bad break on the 72nd hole this past weekend. Levin couldn't manage an even-par 72 that would have been good enough to win on Sunday.

Lefty started the day 6 shots back of Wi, who had gone practically unnoticed all week as the celebrities and Tiger got much of the attention. With a 3-shot lead heading into the final round, Wi didn't feel like the leader.

In 2011, the 54-hole leader won 22 times in 43 events. So far this year, two of the 54-hole leaders have hung on to win. So Wi, Stanley and Levin aren't really outliers, but it feels that way after watching them in the past three weeks. This week in L.A., Wi will have a chance at redemption.

As Yogi Berra would say, "It's like déjà vu all over again."

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

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