CHARLOTTE -- Phil Mickelson, after two weeks off following the Masters, couldn't wait to get to Quail Hollow for the start of the Wachovia Championship.
After spending the past two weeks tinkering with his short game, mostly his putting, the world's No. 2-ranked player was like a kid with a new toy, ready to try it out.
He liked what he saw in Thursday's opening round, shooting a 4-under-par 68. In four previous trips to the tournament, Mickelson hadn't shot better than 70 in the first 36 holes.
"It was a good day,'' he said. "It felt good, and it's good to see some positive results from the time I spent the past couple of weeks.''
Although he's won a tournament this year and lost another in a playoff, Mickelson hasn't been satisfied with his game, particularly on the greens, and he took the past two weeks to spend some time with noted short-game guru Dave Pelz.
Coming into this week, he ranked 84th overall in putting, but was No. 111 in making putts between 10 and 15 feet, numbers not very Mickelson-like.
He and Pelz, using lasers and whatever other technology is available, came up with something. If you watch him putt, you won't see the change.
Mickelson also went to a 35-inch putter, adding an inch. He says with his recent workout and stretching regimen, he's actually gotten taller. The longer putter, he says, helps his back. He can practice longer.
In the first round, he had 26 putts. He one-putted eight times, four times for birdie, three times for par and once for what might have been a round-saving bogey at 18 (his ninth hole).
"That was a big one,'' he said of the 12-footer at 18, after he hit his second shot into the creek. "You'll make some bogeys. You don't want to make a huge mistake.''
He closed his round with a chip-in birdie at the ninth.
"Pretty good, yeah,'' he said of the day.
It was a good start to the continuing remake of Mickelson, the player many believe is still the most likely to challenge Tiger Woods' dominance. Over the last year, he's also tinkered with his swing, says his ball striking is the best part of his game.
The changes may help Mickelson keep pace with Woods, who isn't playing in the Wachovia Championship this week. The best player in this world or any other is sidelined, hoping to recover from knee surgery in time for the U.S. Open in June.
But the man still casts a long shadow.
On Wednesday, Mickelson was asked if he could sense any difference in the tournament atmosphere without Woods around. Mickelson finessed the question like he'd lift a gentle lob shot over a bunker.
"I just got in last night,'' he said. "This is the first event I've played since the Masters. I haven't noticed a difference. But I think the game of golf always suffers when he's not playing.''
On Thursday, he was asked about the difference between his fans and those that follow Tiger.
There was a measured pause before the answer.
"Tiger has a lot of fans, obviously,'' Mickelson said. "If they're out here this week, they're not seeing him. They're going to miss him this week.
"I think that it's pretty easy to see why people like him so much because he's such a great role model, as well as example of greatness.''
And the man every player wants to beat.
Mickelson's game was pretty good before, but he understands it's got to be better to win any tournament Woods might enter.
Mickelson couldn't wait to get to the first tee this week, because he's wanting to get his game ready to defend his Tournament Players Championship next week and to prepare for the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in his home town of San Diego next month, the week when Woods is likely to return.
At 38, Mickelson's window to challenge the 32-year-old Woods isn't quite as wide as it used to be. While golfers can play well into their 40s, their ability to play well consistently after that milestone diminishes. They don't handle the mental and physical pressure of major championships as easily.
It appears Mickelson is making the effort to change as much as possible about his game and himself, and the changes aren't just with his game. If you're Mickelson fan, there is literally less of the man to love.
Listed at 6-3, 200 in his PGA Tour biography, Mickelson is noticeably smaller around the middle. His arms, when he grips and rips that driver, actually have some definition. Those love handles that used to stick out around that belt line aren't nearly as visible. He looks more athletic, less like the Pillsbury doughboy.
But he said things aren't too much different from 2003.
"I mean, I might look a little different,'' he said. "I've probably eaten a little better and maybe increased weight lifting.''
He said he and his trainer "mix it up between martial arts, physio, medicine ball work, as well as just straight cardio and weight lifting."
He says he probably works out five days a week.
Asked about his regimen, he said "specifics don't mean much. But it works. It's been working for me.''
But at least for now, no change is more important than the one he made with the putter over the past two weeks.
"It felt terrific,'' Mickelson said. "To see results right away, that's good.''
Gary McCann• 329-4074 | email@example.com