Commentary

5 things we learned this week

Updated: February 3, 2013, 7:43 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

Two 40-somethings stole the show this week in the world of golf. Phil Mickelson almost shot a 59 on his way to his 41st career win in Phoenix. Vijay Singh is in trouble with deer-antler spray. And the USGA takes a stand on slow play.

1. Mickelson soaring into his 40s

For most of his career, Mickelson has been a very dependable winner in the first quarter of the year. His 4-shot win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Sunday was his 28th win on tour to come within the first four months of the season.

It was a whirlwind week that began with a new driver and a lesson on Wednesday with Butch Harmon, where the teacher to the superstars lifted Lefty's sagging posture.

[+] EnlargeMickelson
Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPhil Mickelson nearly set several records at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, including coming up 2 shots shy of the 72-hole PGA Tour scoring mark.

Then in Thursday's first round, Mickelson came within a lip out at his 18th hole of shooting a 59. From there it was clear sailing to the 41st career win for the 42-year-old Hall of Famer.

As our attention this week veered toward another prolific 40-something on the PGA Tour, Mickelson demonstrated in Phoenix why he has all the goods to surpass Vijay Singh as the king of the decade when many players yearn for the Champions Tour.

Lefty has the power and the touch around the greens to play at an elite level well into his early 50s. But most importantly, he still has the ability to raise his game year after year at the majors, especially the Masters, where he is a three-time winner.

Singh was 41 when he won the last of his three majors at the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. That win was one of nine victories that year for the Fijian.

Mickelson has the chance to best both of those feats in the coming years. And as he showed this week at the rowdy TPC Scottsdale, he will do it with an unpredictable mix of style and flair.

2. Singh's choice

Since joining the PGA Tour full-time in 1993 as a bespectacled 29-year-old, Singh has worked as hard as anyone in professional golf to become an elite player. Around the tour, Singh is well known for being a range rat and a demanding taskmaster to his caddies.

His 34 PGA Tour wins, including a record 22 after his 40th birthday, and three majors place him among the most productive players of the past 25 years.

Now his green jacket, two PGA Championships and nine-win season in 2004 will likely share the spotlight with a banned insulin-like growth hormone harvested from deer in New Zealand.

It's a striking turn of events for a man who reached the zenith of his career at a time when most players are beginning to show decline.

Singh, who will turn 50 later this month, could face a lengthy suspension from the tour for using the substance.

[+] EnlargeVijay Singh
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesVijay Singh withdrew from the Waste Management Phoenix Open citing back pain, but a possible suspension for using a banned substance looms.

Since Sports Illustrated broke the news earlier this week that Singh had been using the spray at least since November, many of his colleagues have strained to separate his legendary work ethic and their high regard for him as a professional from these revelations.

"I was obviously a little bit surprised with what I heard, but I don't think Vijay is a guy that would ever take advantage of anything. I know Vijay," Champions Tour player Mark O'Meara said.

Singh isn't a bad guy and he doesn't have to be to take a banned substance. He made a mistake for which he accepts the consequences. O'Meara and others shouldn't need to defend his character.

Many of us have so associated doping with lies, cheating and scandals that we have too quickly made villains of its perpetrators.

As a very seasoned pro with amazing financial and human resources at his disposal, Singh should have taken every precaution to make sure that the deer-antler spray didn't contain anything on the banned lists. Yet being careless doesn't make him a cheater or unworthy of his place at the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Our conversation shouldn't be about how to keep Singh's Hall of Fame legacy intact, but how to strip away some of the horrible baggage associated with doping so that perpetrators of these illegal practices might come forward willfully and truthfully.

Everyone guilty of doping doesn't carry the same motives. So we shouldn't have a one-size-fits-all prescription to the problem.

There are undoubtedly other players who have tried the spray or unknowingly used other banned substances, but won't come forward because of the fear of tour sanctions and public humiliation.

While it took Lance Armstrong far too long to come clean, he made an important step toward healing his sport by coming forward about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. But Armstrong will be remembered as much for his denial of the allegations as he is for being a disgraced doper.

By coming down hard on Singh, the PGA Tour can send a strong message that it actively punishes dopers. But there should be a place for thoughtful conversation about ways to preserve the integrity of the game, and support those players who break the law with a fair and equitable hearing that prizes honesty and openness over a nasty witch hunt that could do irrevocable damage to the sport.

3. Quote of the week

From Lee Westwood, who finished in a tie for fifth at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday.

"Deer-antler spray? That sounds like something you wax your car with, doesn't it?" Westwood said. "I've never heard of it. … You have to be careful about what you take. I try not to take anything now, really, other than Corona and vodka."


4. Slow play

The USGA announced on Saturday that it had launched a "multifaceted program" to address slow play. This move comes on the heels of the Farmers Insurance Open, where the winner of the San Diego event, Tiger Woods, complained about the laborious pace of the final round.

I was walking inside the ropes that Monday afternoon with Tiger, Billy Horschel and Casey Wittenberg when it took them over 3½ hours to play 11 holes with three par-3s.

Tiger's group waited on every hole for the threesome in front of them, Brad Fritsch, Erik Compton and Steve Marino.

Slow play is inexcusable, but there are occasions when it helps to put the bad habit into some context.

Everybody plays generally slower when they are in 20 mph crosswinds. It was cold and windy at Torrey Pines on Monday.

Secondly, those players in the group in front of Tiger were in a very real sense playing for their livelihoods -- not an easy matter to dismiss. Marino is on a major medical exemption this year after a knee injury cut his 2012 season short. The 32-year-old former University of Virginia star has 20 starts to earn $550,374 to retain his card.

Fritsch and Compton are Q-school graduates steadily trying to get into events from week to week.

So they each had a great deal on the line at Torrey Pines.

It's not that all players don't carry some level of pressure into their rounds, but there are often mitigating circumstances like Mother Nature, nerves and bills that can sometimes encumber one's ability to play fast.

Even though the Compton/Fritsch/Marino group was a full hole out of position on the course, the PGA Tour never gave them a warning to speed things up. Tour officials might have understood their pain, at least when it came to the wind.

In the end, the USGA can do all it wants to encourage faster play, but at the pro level, it's going to be hard to show a guy why he should rush over a shot that could be worth $1 million or the next month's mortgage.

I'm not saying it's right, but I understand.

5. Birdies abound

Everybody loves birdies. In Phoenix this week, Phil Mickelson had 29 of them and an eagle for a 28-under total. The favorable setup at the TPC Scottsdale on Sunday enabled several players to make big jumps up the leaderboard. Scott Piercy had a 10-under 61 to finish third. Ryan Palmer's 62 lifted him to fifth. And with a 63, Kevin Stadler went from 35th to a tie for 11th.

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