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Lefty on course

Yahoo Sports

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Phil Mickelson reacted to his victory-clinching putt at the Northern Trust Open in much the same way that he carried himself the entire tournament, in a thoroughly businesslike fashion.

Apart from a brief challenge from Jeff Quinney midway through the final round, and the Santa Monica fog that had caused his flight to be redirected Wednesday morning, there were few obstacles that bothered the world's No. 2 player en route to his 33rd PGA Tour win.

Even so, Mickelson was still surprisingly restrained following his first title of 2008, with the only whoops, yells and fist-pumps coming from his supporters in the gallery rather than the man himself.

If the trophy had come at the expense of the absent Tiger Woods, instead of the world No. 147 Quinney, then it is a fair bet that a more vocal and expansive celebration would have ensued.

Because Mickelson knows that while results like this one solidify his status as the second best player on the planet, it convinces no one that the gap between him and Woods is narrowing.

Even the satisfaction of winning a tournament that has eluded Woods throughout his career was dampened by Tiger's decision to skip Riviera in order to prepare for the WGC Accenture Match Play tournament in Tucson, Ariz. later this week.

If Woods' career is measured against that of Jack Nicklaus, then Mickelson's, at least for the time being, is constantly compared to Tiger's. Mickelson has enjoyed an excellent career including three major titles, but if he can elevate his play another few notches this year, then it will certainly be to the betterment of the game. Lefty shoulders the hopes of those golf fans who want to see a contest for the number one spot, not merely countless exhibitions of brilliance from the sport's finest exponent –Woods.

"I can see the improvements that I have made but it is not quite to where I believe I can get it," Mickelson said. "I feel like I am getting better and I can taste where I want to get to, but I'm not quite there yet."

In isolation, that quote sounds like it could have come from a PGA Tour rookie struggling to keep his card, but it is to Mickelson's credit that he still chases ultimate success as hungrily as ever.

For all the talk of a possible Tiger grand slam this season, Mickelson will also judge his 2008 in terms of majors won and it seemed like he took more satisfaction from the way this week had set up his season than from the victory itself.

"I always like to get a win early in the season and it gives me momentum for the rest of the year," he said. "It is nice heading into the Augusta stretch that we will start in the middle of March that I have got things rolling."

Mickelson's aura on the course is nowhere near as powerful as the vice-like grip of mental dominance Woods holds over the field every time he plays.

Yet it can still be an important factor, as witnessed by the stretch of four bogeys in five holes that ruined any chance of a Quinney upset.

Quinney tried to brush off claims that he had been affected by the quality of his playing partner, but he'd have a hard time convincing many observers.

"There is always a danger of getting caught up with reputation," Quinney said. "But I don't think I really gave him that power. Sometimes he was kind of shaping shots until 17 and 18 when he knew he had it in the bag and let it rip.

"But the difference is, like Tiger, he doesn't have to be at his best to win, while the rest of us do."