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DOWN THE hill from the spot where Rita Hayworth once practiced her putting is the final hole at Riviera Country Club, a muscular (475 yards) par-4 that begins with a blind tee shot, climbs toward the salmon-colored clubhouse, bends to the right and finishes at the base of a grassy amphitheater. On Sunday afternoon, as the sun melted behind the towering eucalyptus and ancient sycamore above, LPGA Hall of Famer Amy Alcott stood to the right of the 18th green explaining why, even in the Tiger era, she expects Phil Mickelson to have a big year. She commented on Mickelson's frame (tighter than in years past), his putting stroke (trustworthy) and his imagination (in full flight). "To win on a course like this is like winning at Winged Foot or Augusta," said Alcott, who sneaked onto Riviera as a teenager and now plays the course as a member. "You have to be a real artist. This course has a great feel to it, great character and a great personality. I think this is going to give him a lot of momentum." � Like everyone else, Alcott had just witnessed Lefty put on a performance worthy of the dramatic setting. Thanks to a rock-solid short game, Mickelson made the Northern Trust Open the 33rd victory of his PGA Tour career, holding off Jeff Quinney by two shots to etch his name on a trophy that Jack Nicklaus never won and that Tiger Woods—at least for now—has chosen not to pursue. The win, the No. 2--ranked Mickelson's first of the young season, propels him into the first big event of 2008, this week's Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, where 63 of the top 64 players in the world, including Woods, will be in the field. Woods, ranked No. 1, has won his last four starts dating back to the '07 BMW Championship. He is 2 for 2 in '08, winning at Torrey Pines and in Dubai. � Mickelson gave ground to Woods at Torrey, in Mickelson's hometown of San Diego, tying for sixth, but he is now one up on Woods at Riviera, which is just up the road from Woods's childhood home in Cypress. Tiger made his first Tour start at Riviera as a 16-year-old, but after 10 years of leaving the place empty-handed, he has now skipped the last two playings.
Woods's absence has become a talking point at Riviera, if not an overt cause for concern among a membership that includes the likes of actor Larry David, comedian Billy Crystal and crooner Johnny Mathis. Some say the final straw came in 2006, when he withdrew after getting drenched in a rainstorm—his caddie, Steve Williams, failed to pack an umbrella—and catching a cold. And there's talk that Woods simply doesn't like putting on poa annua greens, which can be bumpy, or playing lengthy rounds. Woods has had the same issues with the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which he also eliminated from his rota.
Further speculation has centered on the horrendous traffic along Sunset Boulevard between the club and the 405 Freeway, a stretch of three miles that can take an hour to traverse on any given weeknight. Tom Pulchinski, the Northern Trust tournament director, said that a consultant has been hired to study traffic patterns in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Los Angeles, but, "The course was built in the 1920s. We can't buy the houses, knock them down and build more roads."
LEAVE IT to Mickelson, an inventor of circus shots, to cook up a scheme to extricate himself from the grip of L.A. traffic. For the second straight year he commuted by private plane from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, 110 miles to the south. Each morning he flew out of McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad and landed at the Santa Monica Airport, about six miles from Riviera. Mickelson estimated that the trip from the front door of his house to the gates of Riviera took about an hour. A year ago the plan seemed to be leading Mickelson to victory until he bogeyed the 72nd hole and fell into a playoff with Charles Howell, the eventual winner. Nevertheless, Mickelson again opted for air travel and pregame tips from Alcott. Last Wednesday she occasionally asked him to hit flop shots, just for kicks—"I want you to really fillet this one," Alcott told him—but she also gave him pointers on Riviera's subtle greens.
"I said, 'Phil, you don't need me,'" said Alcott. "He said, 'But you've got great eyes.' Can you imagine Ben Hogan calling up Patty Berg and saying, 'Patty, you grew up at Interlachen—will you help me?' It's the uniqueness of Phil because he likes information, but more important, it speaks to the wealth and breadth of him."
Carrying a four-stroke lead over Quinney into the weekend, Mickelson's putting kept him out of trouble despite the occasional wayward shot. (For the week he ranked eighth in putts per greens hit in regulation.) On Saturday, following an ace by Quinney at the 199-yard 6th hole, Mickelson threw a birdie on top of him, draining a downhill six-footer. When he temporarily fell a stroke behind on Sunday after a bogey at the 9th, Mickelson birdied the 10th from six feet and then got up and down from a bunker at 14, curling in a seven-footer for par (Big Play, page G14) while Quinney made the second of three straight bogeys. "When I first started playing here, I didn't understand the nuances of this course," Mickelson said. "Last year was when I started to put it together, and I'm fortunate to break through this year."
After making a stress-free par at the last, Mickelson shook the hands of playing partners Quinney and John Rollins, then headed toward the stairs behind the green. When he spotted Alcott along the rope line, he leaned over and gave her a hug. Mickelson's caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, carrying the 18th flagstick, turned to Alcott and said, "Nice going, Amy."
Looking trim in his Sunday black, Mickelson marched to the top of the stairs, walked past a statue of Hogan and was soon talking about the Match Play and the run-up to Augusta. Mickelson knows that every step in February and March is about building toward a perfect week in April. Somewhere beyond the rolling hills of Riviera, Woods is surely thinking the same thing.
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