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Live from Doral, it’s Phil Mickelson

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Talk about your madness in March: Phil Mickelson is the closest he’s ever been to the No. 1 world ranking in golf.

Lefty, at the top of the list, the king of the heap? It can’t be.

There are times the guy misses cuts as if for sport. He’ll make on-course decisions with the same judgment as your buddy who specializes in the 2 a.m drink-and-dial. He’ll lose ballast, and post big numbers on consecutive holes as if he’s Tommy Tutone penning lyrics – 867-53 …

And if you’re all still with me through the Tommy Tutone reference, I thank you.

Yet, here he is, after a sterling win at Doral against a majors-worthy field, holding down the world No. 2 spot with a ranking of 8.618. Tiger is atop the ladder with a 9.137. And if you understand those numbers, you obviously have your Masters in BCS-ology.

Speaking of Masters, it was with great certitude that Mickelson said he “cannot wait” for Augusta when he spoke with Roger Maltbie after the round. There was an almost crazed belief in his eye. Then again, that could have been because he needed another IV after spending Saturday night getting some fluids at a local hospital for dehydration.

Mickelson didn’t play as if delirious. Though most of us wrote him off as a major contender after his own personal Massacre at Winged Foot in ’06, there seems to be a hop in this new Lefty’s stride, bombing it, smiling all the while. Miss a green? Chip it in and skip to the next tee box.

Granted, we’ve seen about eight incarnations of Mickelson since Tiger arrived in his chariot. We’ve seen the Can’t-Win-A-Major Phil. We’ve seen Weight Loss Phil. We’ve seen Win-2-Masters Phil. We’ve seen Dave Pelz’ed-Phil. We’ve seen Switching-to-Butch Harmon Phil. We’ve seen Buffed Phil. We’ve seen Winged Foot Phil. And now we see Nearly-Number-One Phil.

All the while, Tiger pretty much worked one incarnation: Tiger.

There is almost no question that, when in contention, Phil plays a more entertaining brand of golf. The gambles will be bigger, the second-guessing more easily done. The golf, of course, will be eye-popping, as when Lefty chipped in three times in Doral’s first round, including 17 and 18. Even Butch Harmon said Phil has a wider array of shots than Tiger, but then again that could have just been Butch, trying to give Tiger the business.

Johnny Miller likened Mickelson’s golf to “riding a wild bronco,” but right now the ride is enthralling. After mailing in his early scorecards on the West Coast, Lefty has now won his last two stroke-play events, and done it his way. At Riviera, he made five bogeys in his first 14 holes on the Sunday before finishing birdie-birdie-par at Hogan’s Alley for the stylish W. At Doral, it was entirely different: seven straight pars to finish out after a hospital stint the night before.

Insert Lefty joke here: It’s easy to get a stomach illness when you play the kind of up-and-down golf Phil plays.

Now, the joke’s on the Phil haters. He’s can’t-miss theatre now, teeing it high and letting if fly. Phil cannot wait for the Masters? Join the party, bud. Neither can we.

Broadcast moment of the week

“I’m gonna go belly, cross, saw grip … you never know what I’m gonna go with tomorrow.” – An exasperated Tiger Woods to NBC’s Dottie Pepper after Saturday’s third round.

And now we officially welcome back Tiger to the scene. When Numero Uno is kvetching and retching over missed putts, you know he’s in mid-season form. There is a sort of accepted arrogance to the way Tiger views his putts; that they are all meant to disappear into the cup, and if they don’t, surely there is some sort of weird supernatural force at work. That’s what makes Tiger, Tiger: His own sort of self-righteousness on putts, as if to say, “Of course that putt went in. I struck it.”

The blade was not working for T-Dub at Doral, and that’s OK. It’s his first stroke-play tournament in nine months, so we’ll forgive the man a few lip burns. One cannot roll out of hibernation and diaper-changes after nearly a year and roll ‘em like Ben Crenshaw.

What was notable, however, was Tiger’s self-flagellation in his chat with Pepper. Rarely do we see this sort of frustration from the implacable star. When Pepper sort of forced him to watch video of his round, and noted a missed putt, Tiger muttered: “Shocker.” He did it again, moments later. It was as if watching himself be less than perfect made Tiger a combination of embarrassed, ticked and astounded.

It sure is nice to have him back, though, isn’t it? He’s getting close, and a four-day run of 71-70-68-68 looks quite nice in print. Bay Hill could be the breakthrough, and by the time we get to the “tuh-na-ment” in Georgia, it will be officially on.

Scorecard of the week

66-67-67-70 – Nick Watney, 270, 18-under, 2nd place, WGC-CA Championship, Doral.

Just for fun, a quick lookalike: Nick Watney and Andy Roddick. With their ball caps on, you have to give me at least a ‘7’ on a scale of 1 to 10.

Watney must have felt a little like Roddick at Doral, playing great and finishing second to an icon, the same way Roddick always seems to come up short against Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.

But whereas Roddick can’t seem to break the glass ceiling, Watney is giving indications he has the stuff of a Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup contender, and is a face to watch at a major. He has a t-11 at the Masters already on his resume.

I loved the way Watney played 18 on Sunday. It was called, perhaps accurately, the most intimidating par-4 finish on tour. Yet, there was Watney, one stroke down, letting it rip on his tee shot, matching Mickelson’s prodigious and gutsy drive, then showing some steel on his approach to 30 feet. His birdie try went 29 feet, 11 inches.

Watney is long, not afraid to win, and only 27. What’s not to like?

Mulligan of the week

• So it’s the 12th hole at Doral. Thursday afternoon. Things are normal.

And then Henrik Stenson came along.

With his golf ball lying in the mucky shallow water of south Florida, Stenson had a choice: Take an unplayable lie. Or remove his shoes and socks, roll up the pant legs, and try to hit out of mud that would be ankle-deep.

Stenson, to everyone’s dismay, chose Option C: Remove shoes. Remove socks. REMOVE PANTS.

As if to fulfill some sort of exhibitionist streak, Stenson figured he’d go whole hog and REMOVE HIS SHIRT, ALSO.

What was left was Henrik (The Pantless Wonder) Stenson, standing in his boxer-briefs only, hitting his golf ball, in a too-graphic image for the ages. I don’t want to get too personal here, but I now know Stenson’s religion.

That he made birdie on the hole isn’t sufficient explanation.

Disrobing was clearly unnecessary, for a number of reasons, prime among them the photo that traversed the global wires that day. (Though we must give a special tip of the Yahoo! cap to Kyle Auclair, a friend of the column, for snapping it.) Stenson could have easily just rolled the pants up, gotten a bit of a splash, then played his last six holes, finished up, and returned to his hotel room – where his sponsor surely has dozens and dozens of complimentary pants, socks, shirts, sweaters and boxer-briefs awaiting him.

If his sponsor didn’t have them, surely we golf fans could pass the hat and get the guy a new pair of trousers.

Now I don’t want to engage in any ethnic stereotypes here, lest I lose my job, but it is of note that Stenson is from Sweden, the same country that produced volcano dust-eating Jesper Parnevik. Note to self: Any vacation to Sweden will surely yield some memorable moments.

Let’s hope Stenson’s Gypsy Rose Lee act doesn’t damage the future of one of the world’s best players. I did note that Stenson finished Doral with a final-round 83, perhaps suggesting the days of driving range-ribbing and endless media curiosity took its toll.

So I say to Henrik Stenson, from my column to your career … somebody give that man a mulligan! Failing that, get that man a bathrobe.

Where do we go from here?

• To Innisbrook, for one of those ‘tweener tournaments – as in, between some good tournaments, you have tournaments like Innisbrook. Tiger rests up for a week. Phil looks for another IV. And Rory McIlroy is on a plane back to Northern Ireland, alas.

But, hey – Y.E. Yang is playing!

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