HUMBLE, Texas (AP)—Phil Mickelson sauntered up the 18th fairway at Redstone, flashed his boyish smile and acknowledged fans with friendly nods and thumbs-up signs.
He hopes to have an equally relaxing walk up the final hole this weekend.
The defending Masters champion outdueled Scott Verplank on Sunday to win the Houston Open by three shots, Mickelson’s first victory since earning his third green jacket last April.
Moments after his final putt dropped, Lefty was already thinking about Augusta.
“I’ve got a big event next week and it’s time,” he said. “As much as I loved winning here and I’ll look back on this in seven, eight days, this being a very special day. Right now, you know, I’ve got some work to do.”
He’ll not only arrive with a new trophy, but also a notable distinction.
The win moved Mickelson’s world ranking to No. 3, while Tiger Woods dropped to No. 7. It’s the first time Mickelson has been ahead of Woods in the ranking since the week before Woods won the 1997 Masters for his first major championship.
“I haven’t looked at the rankings and so forth,” Mickelson said. “Right now, this has been an awesome week, a lot of fun. I’ve got some work to do when (Monday) comes around. It’s not like I can celebrate and enjoy the victory. There’s some work to be done to get ready for Thursday.”
Lefty is hoping he can repeat some history at Augusta this week. The 39-time tour winner is the last player to win the week prior to a Masters victory, capturing the BellSouth Classic in 2006 before earning his second green jacket. The Houston Open became the run-up event to Augusta in 2007.
While many top players, including Woods and world No. 1 Martin Kaymer sat out this week, Mickelson saw no disadvantage in coming here and trying to win. Anthony Kim won last year and finished third at the Masters.
“I think it’s nothing but a plus to be able to gain some momentum,” Mickelson said. “especially given that I haven’t had the results and the scores that I wanted earlier in the year. It gives me a little bit of momentum.”
The 40-year-old Mickelson shot a 7-under 65 on Sunday, the lowest closing score by a winner this year, to finish at 20 under.
He was 16 under over his final 36 holes, after tying the course record with a 63 on Saturday, his lowest round in two years. He won for the fifth straight time when he’s shot 64 or better in at least one of the rounds.
“I’ve been saying all year, ‘I’m playing well, but I’m not getting the scores out of it, and I’m just kind of having a lapse of focus,”’ he said. “It was a great week in that regard, and great for getting momentum heading in next week.”
Second-round leader Chris Kirk (67) tied Verplank (68) at 17 under.
Verplank needed a victory just to get to Augusta. The 46-year-old Verplank, with his sore left wrist wrapped in black tape, would’ve become the fifth-oldest champion in the last five years.
His wrist is weakened by a degenerative bone condition, and it affected his grip Sunday. He was making only his fourth start this year.
“It’s nice that I hadn’t forgotten how to play,” he said. “If you’re hurt, you don’t have a ton of confidence in your body. It’s hard to have confidence in anything.”
Verplank earned $519,200 for finishing second, and moved into 14th on the career money list ($26.741 million), passing Retief Goosen and Stuart Appleby. He plans to play in San Antonio in two weeks and at Hilton Head in three.
“That would be ideal,” he said, “but I mean, this is the first time I’ve played two weeks in a row. I hope that I can be ready to play in another week.”
Mickelson reeled off five straight birdies, starting on No. 9. Verplank kept pace for a while, with birdies on Nos. 8, 10, 12 and 13.
“I was birdieing every other hole,” Verplank said, “and I couldn’t pull away from the guy.”
Lefty tried to use his length advantage over Verplank on the 319-yard 12th, driving onto the front of the green, 66 feet away. He two-putted from there for his fourth straight birdie and his 16th in 30 holes.
They both birdied the par-5 13th, but Verplank three-putted on No. 14, leaving Mickelson alone at the top. Mickelson three-putted the par-5 15th, but then widened the gap for good on the 16th green.
“All in all,” Mickelson said, “this was one of the best weeks I’ve had in a long time, as far as seeing the shot and being able to hit it.”
Photo - Michael Cohen / Getty Images
Chris Duncan, AP Sports Writer GolfGreedy.com