PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Optimism is never in short supply for Phil Mickelson, and it was especially high when he left the Monterey Peninsula last year with his 44th career PGA Tour victory and his fifth title in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
He had the entire year ahead of him.
It didn't turn out the way he imagined.
“After I won last year, I knew I was going to go out and just crush the rest of the year,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “And the rest of the year crushed me."
It wasn't that he failed to win again — no shame in that after turning 49 and competing against an increasingly younger PGA Tour — he only cracked the top 20 one time, at the Masters.
The Presidents Cup, which dates to 1994, was played without him for the first time. And by the end of the year, he was out of the top 50 in the world for the first time in 26 years.
“I didn't play up to my level of expectation, and it just kind of snowballed and got worse,” Mickelson said.
He returns to Pebble Beach with his optimism still strong. Mickelson has shied away from a previous guarantee of reaching 50 wins on the PGA Tour. With age comes a dose of reality. But he likes the way he is swinging. He likes the way he is thinking again. And he picked up some momentum from finishing third last week in Saudi Arabia.
It was particularly refreshing because Mickelson had missed the cut in Palm Springs and San Diego, the first time in his long career as a pro he had missed the cut in consecutive events to start the year.
“I was really excited about how I was playing. And then I get on the golf course and I start not seeing what I want to have happen but more what I don't want to have happen,” Mickelson said. “My inability to kind of control my thoughts was getting the best of me the first few weeks. And I was able to identify the problem and then fix it and start to control my thoughts a little bit better, control my visualization, and I hit a lot of good shots thereafter.”
For everyone, there will be plenty of good visualization this week, with a forecast of sunshine, although temperatures will remain in the 50s. Players will take sun over a few extra layers for warmth rather than a rain suit.
“When the sun shines, there's no better place on the golfing planet to be,” Graeme McDowell said.
Three of the more intriguing players in the field all have Saudi connections — Mickelson, McDowell and Dustin Johnson. McDowell won the Saudi International by two shots over Johnson, with Mickelson in third. All three flew across 12 time zones to take part in a tournament with heritage and beauty.
“The win last week was important at a lot of levels, just to get me back up the rankings, get me back in a couple of the WGC events — which is really important — the major championships, and get me back in the right direction again,” McDowell said. “Ticked a lot of boxes and hopefully I can use it as a springboard to kick on for a big year, big season ahead.”
McDowell's victory got him back into the top 50 in the world for the first time since 2015. Johnson is a two-time winner at Pebble Beach who is approaching the one-year anniversary of his last victory, an alarming development given a skill set that leads many players to believe he's still the best in the game.
Also playing is Jordan Spieth, who has been in a spiral since his British Open victory in 2017 to reach the third leg of the career Grand Slam. Spieth fell out of the top 50 for the first time since his rookie year in 2013, and then he missed the cut in the Phoenix Open last week.
He has kept a low profile this week, although he is busy as an AT&T ambassador and he received “The Arnie Award” for his charitable work, given to people who best emulate Palmer's attributes.
On the course, it's time for Spieth to hitch up his pants and go.
As for Mickelson, he is playing his fourth straight week — three in California, one in Saudi Arabia. And he again is looking forward while hopeful for better results.
“This is a different year and I've had a great offseason and a lot of good things have happened in the last three, four months and I'm very excited for the year,” Mickelson said. “I know that the first two weeks didn't go as planned, but the rest of the year is going to be very good.”
He hopes to crush it, not the other way around.