POTOMAC - He is the best player in the field this week, his world ranking and glittering resume far exceeding most of the other golfers who will tee it up beginning today in the $3.5 million Kemper Insurance Open at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel.
So why isn't Phil Mickelson the kind of mortal lock that his main rival, Tiger Woods, is at most tournaments? Why shouldn't Mickelson take apart this slightly funky stadium course the way Woods does at more revered places such as Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews?
The answer is not easily found.
For all the success Mickelson has achieved as he approaches his 31st birthday next month - as usual, he will blow out the candles, if not the competition, at the U.S. Open in Tulsa - doubts about his toughness still haunt this former phenom.
They creep up everywhere, from tight Ryder Cup matches to tense back-nine showdowns at major championships to recent tournaments outside New Orleans and Dallas. It usually comes down to Mickelson's putting, particularly his short putting.
The question begs to be asked: How can a player ranked second in the world, the winner of 18 PGA Tour events (including one as an amateur) and a man considered to be one of the most creative around the green ever to play the game, blow so many short putts - and tournaments to boot?
For this, Mickelson offers a simple explanation, one to which even weekend hackers can relate.
"It's a physical thing - I have not practiced my short putts in two years," Mickelson said yesterday, as he tried to put the memories from last week's MasterCard Colonial as well as the Compaq Classic of New Orleans three weeks ago behind him. "It's my own fault. I've been working on other areas."
Mickelson said he used to practice a drill where he had to make 100 3-footers in a row before he would leave the course for the night, a drill that Woods works on even when he has double-digit leads. Part of it is also attributable to Mickelson becoming a father shortly after the 1999 U.S. Open.
"I didn't miss any 3-footers for months," said Mickelson, whose putting stroke is noticeably less fluid than it was earlier in his career. "I have not been doing that [practicing] and consequently, I have missed a lot of short putts. I have to work on that."
Despite being ranked second to Woods in earnings this year with more than $2.7 million, the 2001 season has been one of near misses and inexplicable Sunday collapses for Mickelson.
It started earlier this year at Pebble Beach, when Mickelson failed to hold his share of the lead by shooting a final-round 73. After winning the Buick Invitational in a playoff - with a double bogey, no less - Mickelson lost by a shot to Woods at Bay Hill despite shooting a final-round 66.
Mickelson blew a three-shot lead in the final round of the BellSouth Classic when he blew up with a 75. His short putting, including a three-putt bogey from 4 feet on the eighth hole Sunday, proved costly in losing by three shots to Woods at the Masters.
Then came New Orleans, where a pedestrian 72 in the final round allowed Mickelson to be passed on the back nine Sunday by David Toms, who shot a 64 to win by two strokes. And, finally, last week at Colonial, Mickelson had a four-shot lead evaporate under the heat of Sergio Garcia's blistering 63.
"It's been an interesting time," Mickelson said. "One of the things I've worked on this year is to play consistently at the highest level and get in contention week in and week out. The downside is when I'm in those positions and not taking advantage of it.
"I haven't been quite as focused or quite as intense as I should have been on Sunday and I have been a little lackadaisical trying to close it ... I haven't looked at my opponents' numbers. All I know is that I have not shot good enough."
That is what Mickelson is hoping to avoid at a tournament he has played only three times. Mickelson finished tied for fourth here in 1994, missed the cut the following year and tied for 14th in 1997. He has not been back to Avenel since.
"I think it would help my confidence quite a bit if I could break through and win a tournament before the U.S. Open," Mickelson said.
While there were rumors in the aftermath of his back-nine meltdown Sunday that he might return home to Arizona with his wife, Amy, and their 23-month-old daughter, Amanda, Mickelson flew his private jet here. He was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Camden Yards Tuesday night, but the game was rained out.
"After last week and not playing as well as I wanted to on Sunday, I wanted another shot at it quick," Mickelson said. "I couldn't wait to get here quick. The difficulty I'll have right now is being patient. I need to be patient my first couple of rounds to give myself a chance on Sunday."
In the past, much of the attention surrounding Mickelson has focused on his inability to win majors. He will take an 0-for-31 drought as a pro into the U.S. Open at Southern Hills. But after winning only once this year despite being in contention seven times, the talk about Mickelson will be his inability to close out tournaments.
"I don't look at it as frustrating," he said. "I look at it as giving myself chances to win. I've enjoyed those Sunday opportunities. It's a lot more enjoyable than going out at 8 o'clock in the morning without a shot to win."
Nor is Mickelson frustrated - at least not publicly - in his pursuit of Woods.
After beating Woods twice in head-to-head matchups last year among his four wins, first by stopping Woods' five-tournament winning streak at the Buick Invitational and later by winning The Tour Championship, Mickelson has been only a spectator to history.
Woods will be going after his fifth straight major at the U.S. Open and Mickelson is hoping for another chance to stop the world's best player in his spectacular run. Mickelson has played spottily in the Open, his best opportunity coming when he lost by two shots to the late Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999.
"I think of it as a challenge ... ," Mickelson said. "He has created a great challenge for all the players to come and catch him. It's going to be difficult to catch him and beat him ... I believe I'm not too far away from doing that."
Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Potomac
When: Today through Sunday
Who: A field of 156 players, including Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, John Daly, Fred Funk and defending champion Tom Scherrer.
Purse: $3.5 million, with winner receiving $630,000
Tickets: Available at Ticketmaster outlets or on the Internet at www.kemperopen.pgatour.com. Grounds tickets are $35, grounds and entrance to the Pavilion Club are $50. Children 17 and under are $5 through Sunday.
Parking: Shuttle service available from the Marriott headquarters in Bethesda (take 95 South to 495 West to Democracy Boulevard).