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Can Lefty be part of No. 1 debate?

As one desert in the United Arab Emirates plays host to the paparazzi and two megastar major champions, a desert in Southern California is the setting for a more low-key affair headlined by another uber-successful major champion and a former U.S. president.

Smiling and dressed in matching logos, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy represent the pinnacle of the game at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. In the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, Woods and McIlroy signal their burgeoning rivalry and point to a new season of major championships and shifts in the official world rankings.

Phil Mickelson, who is making his season debut this week at the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., used to figure more in these debates.

When McIlroy was still a young boy honing his game at the Holywood Golf Club in Northern Ireland, Mickelson and Tiger were the dominant forces in the sport. It was the closest thing my generation had to a rivalry. But now in a very real sense, McIlroy fills the role that Mickelson once played with Tiger.

At the 2012 Masters, Mickelson was asked about this changing of the guard.

"I'm cool with it," he said. "I don't have a problem with it. I am where I am, and I'm fine with it."

Yet as secure as Mickelson is with himself and his accomplishments, he is still one of the game's fiercest competitors. With that glowing smile and warm charisma, he is as popular as ever with the fans. He enjoys being the man.

Around the tour, Mickelson and his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, are lauded for their long partnership, hard work and meticulous preparation. The last thing either one of them want is has-been status. Even in golf, where there is almost a different winner every week, rivalries are a big part of the game's attraction. Players feed off this energy.

But can the 42-year-old Hall of Famer stay firmly in the mix with McIlroy and Tiger for a full season? Can he remain focused on the task at hand with his golf course design projects and other business interests competing for his attention?

Perhaps the only thing predictable about the four-time major winner's game is its unpredictability. After a win and three top-5s in his first nine events of 2012, he went more than three months without a top-10. Last year, after that tie for third at the Masters, he didn't have a good finish at another major. Three late-season top-5s and a good Ryder Cup saved the end of his year from total ruin.

With Mickelson, it's hard to always know the source of the problems. Even when it looks like the cause of his poor performances arise from the driver, his putter, some mental mistake, fatigue or a ringing cell phone, you know that he's won tournaments dealing with many of these issues. But rarely has he succeeded at coping with them over the course of a tournament week.

It's a good bet, though, that the lefty will play well on the West Coast swing with whatever game he shows up with.

Twenty-seven of his 40 PGA Tour wins have come in the first quarter of the season. Twice he has started his year with wins at the Humana Challenge and he's currently ranked 19th in the world.

He gets up for the year's first major like no one in the game. He has three green jackets and 11 other top-10s in 20 Masters appearances.

And he'll probably continue to be one of the most consistent winners in the world. His victory in February 2012 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am marked his ninth consecutive year with at least one tour win.

Mickelson might be settled on the periphery of all the hype surrounding Woods and McIlroy. In Lefty's prime, it never helped his game to carry Tiger around in his head as a psychological barrier. Yet Mickelson knows that to get that elusive career grand slam (by winning a U.S. Open and an Open Championship) he will likely have to go through McIlroy and Woods.

For Mickelson, the way back to the top starts this week at PGA West and the La Quinta Country Club. This event represents an early-season tuneup for the buildup to the Masters. He won't have Tiger and McIlroy to beat, but he will face a strong field at the event made famous by Bob Hope.

The field includes last week's Sony winner, Russell Henley, and nine players from the 2012 Tour Championship, including playoff winner Brandt Snedeker, as well as Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson.

Ultimately, all of these players want to be in that conversation with Tiger and McIlroy. Mickelson knows what it's like to guide that discussion. And a good start to the West Coast swing with a win at the Humana could get people talking about him again.