Mickelson speaks

I forgot to post this interview with Phil Mickelson…in advance of the LG Skins Game, which starts Saturday. The last question asks Mickelson if he’s ever going to play in Tiger’s Chevron World Challenge. Read and find out. Mickelson is always eligible to play since Woods invites the world’s top 12 players, plus four exemptions. When a player, like Mickelson, declines the invitation, Woods goes to the next-best player in the world rankings.

STEVE BRENER: Thank you for joining us for the LG SKINS GAME conference call with Phil Mickelson. Phil will be joining twotime defending champion Stephen Ames and K.J. Choi and U.S. Open runnerup Rocco Mediate for the event that’s happening Thanksgiving weekend, November 29th and 30th, at the Celebrity Course at the beautiful Indian Wells Golf Resort. ABC Sports will televise the event.

Phil, I’d like to start the questioning. Just talk about your year, which was quite successful, winning over $5 million on the PGA TOUR, with two victories, eight top 10s, and finishing in the top 25 in 19 of 21 events. Talk about how you felt your year went.

PHIL MICKELSON: It was a consistent year that I would have liked to have had more victories, but I thought I played consistently week in and week out fairly well.

I just got back from a great twoweek stint in China and Singapore. Had a great time with my family there. I’m looking forward to finishing the year in Indian Wells for the LG SKINS GAME.

STEVE BRENER: You’ve been in two LG SKINS GAMES. It’s going to be a little different for you, since Mr. Skins, Mr. Couples, isn’t with us this time around. Talk about your experience in 2002 and 2003. Do you recall those two events?

PHIL MICKELSON: I enjoyed competing in the SKINS GAME those two years. I remember watching the SKINS GAME as a kid. One of my best memories of the SKINS GAME was watching Nicklaus on 18 at Desert Highlands make a putt for $240,000 and throw his putter up in the air. I thought that was a pretty cool moment.

I think this will be a fun SKINS GAME this year because we have a very interesting character with Rocco Mediate, who I think will provide some entertaining commentary throughout the week. He’s always been a favorite player of mine because he’s got such a great disposition on life and on the game. I enjoy hearing his banter. He’s funny. He’s very much like Lee Trevino with his personality.

I also think that we have one of the nicest guys on TOUR, K.J. Choi, one of the most solid players. Certainly we’re all going to be trying to dethrone the twotime champion, Stephen Ames.

STEVE BRENER: Do you recall that first putt you had for $100,000 in 2002 on the 8th hole, about a fourfoot birdie putt?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, first of all, it was a while ago, but I remember being nervous. It’s interesting how for really the only event I can think of that we’re thinking about money as opposed to the top prize. As opposed to just trying to win a championship, playing our own games, we’re actually thinking about money. We’re actually much more aware of our competitors than we would be in a normal event.

STEVE BRENER: Have you played this course at all?

PHIL MICKELSON: I have not, no. I’m hoping to get a round in, either the ProAm on Friday, or maybe even a practice round.

STEVE BRENER: Talk about your FedExCup experience this year, how you felt that went.

PHIL MICKELSON: I wish it had gone a little bit better. But it was also a very interesting FedExCup that I was pleased to have played my best golf the final event, coming up just a shot shy of a playoff.

STEVE BRENER: We’re going to throw it open to questions.

Q. It’s been I guess since the 2006 Masters since you won your last major. Looking ahead to ’09, what are you specifically doing to gear up for the majors? Anything other than the Masters that you have an eye on?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, right now I think all the players, myself especially, we’re just looking forward to the next major, and the next major being the Masters happens to be my favorite. I’m a little biased, having won it twice. But it is such an amazing place, an amazing experience. As a professional golfer, that’s the tournament that I’ll be gearing for.

Having not won the last couple of years, I’m certainly hungry to get another major championship. I felt like this year I actually struck the ball quite well in every major, but I did not putt anywhere near as well. So I’ve been addressing that. Fortunately, the last four or five events I’ve played in, I’ve putted very well.

I think Dave Pells and I have kind of identified why the last year or so has been a struggle for me on the greens. I’ll be working on that in the offseason, to get that sharp and ready for next year.

I feel as though the consistency that I’ve had this year as far as top 25s was evident with a lot of the changes that Butch Harmon helped me with. He and I will be spending a little bit more time this offseason to make sure that stays sharp. But if I can get this putter fixed, I think ’09′s going to be a great year.

Q. Could you also talk about Bethpage specifically.

PHIL MICKELSON: Bethpage was one of the coolest events I’ve had ever in the game of golf. It happened in ’02. Even though I didn’t win, it was still one of my fondest memories.

Q. To change the subject a little bit, what are your thoughts on this European Tour Race to Dubai, how that might help or possibly hurt the PGA TOUR? What do you think about that?

PHIL MICKELSON: I’m not really sure. I’m not really sure how it affects the PGA TOUR. I thought that it was intriguing. I’ve certainly been looking at it. Although I did not commit to joining the European Tour this year, it’s something that I’m still open to and considering in the future.

Q. Are you not playing any events this year in that?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, I think to be eligible you have to be a member. I certainly have played a couple of events. The HSBC in Shanghai was I believe a European Tour event for ’09. The Barclay’s Singapore Open I don’t think has been a part of the ’09 schedule, but I think there’s plans to make it part of the schedule coming up. And I’m looking at playing a couple more events on the European Tour. I always play the Scottish Open before the British, and I may even play another one or two times.

But to be a part of that Race to Dubai, you have to be a Tour member, which I did not commit to.

Q. A lot of players have. Do you see that being an issue?

PHIL MICKELSON: I’m not really sure. I really haven’t seen who else has committed and I haven’t talked to them to see what their plans are, so I’m not sure if that will affect the TOUR in any way.

Q. The economy is in bad shape right now. I’m wondering how big of a concern that is among the players, from a sponsorship of events angle, with people like Buick in there? How big a concern is that?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, it’s always a concern for any field of entertainment because that seems to be always the area that’s looked at first for cuts.

I hope that our sponsors still see the value in being part of the PGA TOUR and the exposure and the relationships that are developed during their tournament week. The biggest area certainly for the PGA TOUR I think is the automotive manufacturers, because that’s an area that’s getting hit pretty hard right now, and they’re one of our biggest sponsors. So I’m not sure how that will play out.

But Commissioner Finchem has done a really great job for the PGA TOUR to withstand the highs and the lows of the economy and the markets. We’ve had a steady pace of growth throughout the 15, 16 years that I’ve been out on TOUR. I remember the purses were $1 million when I first came out. To see that the average is over 6 now, it’s mindboggling to me what a great job he has done in keeping the TOUR growing at a nice, steady pace.

But certainly it’s always a concern when the economy’s been struggling the way it has.

Q. The FedExCup, it was kind of anticlimactic this year. Do you see any changes coming in that series at some point?

PHIL MICKELSON: I’m sure the TOUR’s looking at some subtle changes now because I’m sure everybody wants it to finish on the final event. I don’t think anybody was happy with it being done prior to THE TOUR Championship. But I don’t know what specifically is being looked at as being the solutions.

But, you know, this is only two years into the process so I’m sure that nobody expected it to be perfect right off the bat. Everybody’s hopeful that it will continue to grow in its excitement level each year.

Q. You referenced earlier your work with Butch Harmon. Since you started working with him before you won THE PLAYERS in ’07 till now, how would you characterize where you are in that relationship? It seemed to come together so quickly with your win at THE PLAYERS last year. But obviously there’s ups and downs with that sort of thing. Can you just talk about how that has helped you. Did any of that lead to you maybe taking your eye off of putting for a time?

PHIL MICKELSON: It’s certainly possible to that effect. But the work that Butch and I have done in the last year and a half I’m very excited about. Even though the actual results on the course haven’t come through, I don’t feel as though I feel as though the level of consistency is evident, that the work that Butch and I have been doing is paying off.

The biggest factor as I look back upon the year in ’09 is why I didn’t win as much as I would have liked and didn’t contend as much as I would have liked in the majors specifically. I can only lead to on the putting green. I didn’t putt the way I normally have the last six, seven years.

Pelz and I spent some time before the Ryder Cup trying to get my putting sharp. We spent a lot of time on the Callaway putting cameras and studio. We think we identified an area that needed to be fixed. And I’ve been working on that. I had a good putting week on the Ryder Cup and my best putting week the following week in THE TOUR Championship. I putted well the last couple weeks in Asia. So I believe we’ve identified why I’ve been not at my best the last year.

I think that if I can get the putting together as well as continuing on the work that Butch and I have been doing on the golf swing, that ’09 should shape out to be an exciting year for me.

Q. On a completely different topic, there’s been some rumblings recently about Azinger maybe coming back in ’10. In the celebration you guys all sort of were pushing for that that night. But now that you’re aware of it for a couple of months, and he has not closed the door on it, your thoughts about that? It’s been a long time since we’ve had a captain do it twice in a row. I’m wondering how you would feel about him doing it again?

PHIL MICKELSON: That’s an interesting question. We’ve had some wonderful captains in the past. I really think Tom Lehman was an incredible captain. We’ve had a number of great captains in the past where we have not played our best for him.

But Zinger gave us a great model for success. Rather than stray from it, I think it would be a great idea for us to have him return and give us that same model for success. But I don’t want to interfere with the PGA of America and their decisionmaking process because the captaincy has always been a wonderful way to validate a player’s career. It’s always been such a great honor and a big part of a player’s career, one of their highlights. So I don’t want to detract from the PGA’s process because they obviously know what they’re doing.

But I thought that Paul’s model for success for us would be great to carry on.

Q. A couple things on Tiger. Him sort of being sidelined for half the season last year, do you look at that at all as a missed opportunity? I know you won twice earlier in the year, but went winless after Tiger went down. Secondly, do you suppose Tiger, him being a guy you’ve chased for so long, he’s driven you, him not being in the mix, does that somehow detract from your motivation?

PHIL MICKELSON: I’m not sure if it does or doesn’t. I certainly am excited for him to come back. I know that’s probably not what you expect to hear. But I, as well as the entire golfing world, can’t wait for his return. I’m excited for him to have another child on the way. I think this is a great time for him, to have spent a bunch of time with Elin and Sam Alexis. I think this is a time that, even though he’s been injured, it’s been a real positive for him in a number of other ways.

But as far as me and the golfing world, we can’t wait to have him come back. I miss him as a player. I miss him as a person. I miss trying to track him down, because that always is a great challenge.

As far as a missed opportunity, certainly Padraig Harrington took advantage of the opportunity and won a couple of majors. That’s what I was hoping to do. The only thing that I can look at is I just didn’t play my best, and I need to find ways to get my best golf out.

Again, I look at the offseason and some of the areas that I’m going to work on to try to make ’09 a better year. I think that I’ve identified a couple of those areas and I’m looking forward to working on that.

Q. But you’re not beating yourself up too much?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, we want to look forward. I look back on ’08. Even though it wasn’t what I wanted, there are some positives that I take from it. I try to take that into ’09 and add to it.

Q. A question about the LG Skins Game real quick. What kind of interest do you think it would inject in the event if you got four guys who were playing for their own money? Do you see that ever happening or do you think the TOUR’s regs on gambling will get in the way?

PHIL MICKELSON: I don’t know if the format will ever change. But I do know, I’m looking forward to playing this year and being a part of the LG SKINS GAME. It’s always been kind of a mainstay for Thanksgiving. And I think that with Rocco’s banter and him and I having a good relationship for quite some time now, knowing each other well, I think it will be kind of an interesting round of golf.

Q. Along those lines, outside of Accenture, unless I’m missing something obvious, we have 72 holes of stroke play every week. Do you think the TOUR could use a different format to spice things up? As many Tuesday and Wednesday games as you’ve had throughout your career, would you have any suggestions?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, I do like playing the Accenture match play because it is a different format. But it’s hard logistically to ensure having a number of people, the top players who are playing their best on Sunday, for sponsors, for hospitality, for fans, spectators. I don’t know of another format that could get that done. So it seems like the 72hole stroke play is always the most logical scenario, even though we all as players enjoy a different format. We certainly enjoy the match play I think. But the most exciting days are probably Wednesday and Thursday.

Q. The economy, where that may be headed, how easy is it for you guys to get spoiled on TOUR and how hard do you think it will be to have to accept maybe fewer perks, especially for the younger guys?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, it’s going to be an interesting thing because, first of all, a lot of companies will look at possible cuts. We’re hoping that we as a TOUR show that we’re the best vehicle for their limited marketing dollars at this time. And so we’ve got to really work hard, whether it’s in the ProAm day, to make sure that the clients are entertained properly, and that relationships are built throughout that day, as well as throughout the tournament, that we provide a strong product and that we can hopefully get our TV ratings and the interest in the game of golf up.

We’re going to have to fight and compete for all those marketing dollars.

Q. Did you ever have to buy range balls?

PHIL MICKELSON: I missed that time. I do remember a lot of guys talking about it when I came out in the summer of ’92, when I was playing in TOUR events in the early ’90s. We never had to buy golf balls. We always had the new ones. In fact, even when I was a kid in the mid to late ’80s, I remember brandnew balls on the range. So I missed that time.

Q. Can I ask you to be as undiplomatic as possible. Sergio just overtook you in the world ranking, the No. 2 spot. Deep down is Sergio a better golfer than you? Does he deserve that spot?

PHIL MICKELSON: I won’t answer that directly. But I think that he’s played some wonderful golf this year. I haven’t played to the level that I want as far as wins. I’ll be looking to, again, improve on that in ’09.

If I play well, I think the rankings, those are things that I try not to think about because I know that if I play good enough golf, it will take care of itself.

Q. Do you think a guy with no majors sort of deserves to be the second best player in the world?

PHIL MICKELSON: I think for a long time I had no majors, and you can be a wonderful golfer. He’s played some incredible and consistent golf week in and week out. I’ve got to do the same. I’ve got to play to the level I know I’m capable of.

Q. What’s it going to be like to be the defending champion at Riviera this next year?

PHIL MICKELSON: I think it’s going to be awesome. I’m going to be doing a charity event for Callaway Golf up at Riviera here December 15th, spend some time up there. For me now to have finally won there, it means a lot because Riviera has such a history to the golf course and I have not played well there in the past. In fact, I missed it a number of years probably because I haven’t played well there.

To have not only won this year, but last year lost in a playoff, and to have played well at Riviera means a lot to me. I’ve really enjoyed the last couple years playing there. Commuting from San Diego has made it nice for me to be able to sleep at home. I think it’s also contributed to my good play.

Now Riviera has a special place in my heart, and I look forward to coming back and defending.

Q. You made us jealous last year. It was quicker for you to get home to San Diego than for us to get home on the freeway.

PHIL MICKELSON: That happened two times in the last two years, each year with my caddy before he got to his hotel. It’s very difficult traveling east to get to the freeway.

Q. Could you talk about how that dropping to the third spot in the world might be a motivator for you. Does that affect you whatsoever?

PHIL MICKELSON: That’s really not the motivator for me. My motivation is that I want to try to win more tournaments and more majors. The biggest area for me is I have not putted well in the last year. I think I finally identified what that is and how to fix it. I’m excited about the prospects for ’09 because my ball striking has improved to a level I haven’t had throughout my career, thanks to Butch. Now that I’m getting this putting worked out, I think ’09′s going to be a great year.

Q. Will you ever play in Tiger’s tournament? What is your team right now in the NFL that looks like your pick?

PHIL MICKELSON: Well, I’m obviously biased growing up in San Diego. I’m a big Chargers fan. We’ve lost a lot of close, tough games in the last minute or two this year. Some our fault, some not. I’m hoping they turn it around because they’re my team through and through. There’s no other team I pull for harder than the Chargers.

As far as Tiger’s tournament, the difficulty for me is that I need to take a couple of months off. I need to take two months off to get physically ready for the upcoming season and to address the shortcomings of my game from the previous year or two and try to improve those for the upcoming season. It’s difficult to do when I’m traveling and playing tournaments.

So unless the date of the tournament changes, it’s difficult for me to play in those months.

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About Jill Painter

Jill Painter is a sports columnist for the Los Angeles News Group, covering everything from the Dodgers, Lakers, Clippers, USC, UCLA, Kings, golf and all human interest stories in sports.