Friday, April 05, 2002

Mickelson works on Masters degree

Extra practice part of lefty's plan at tuneup

The Associated Press

Phil Mickelson watches his tee shot from the fourth tee box during the first round of the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga., Thursday.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        DULUTH, Ga. — Looking ahead to the Masters, Phil Mickelson sneaked off to a college course to work on his short game.

        Those lessons paid off in the first round of the BellSouth Classic.

        Mickelson opened with a 7-under-par 65 Thursday, putting him just one stroke behind leader Steve Elkington on the hilly, sprawling TPC at Sugarloaf course.

        Next week, Mickelson will try to overcome the burden of being the best player never to win a major.

        “When I am playing, I really haven't been looking ahead too much,” he said. “I look at this as a tournament where if I can play well, work hard on my game and get it ready, that's my best way to prepare for next week.”

        After Wednesday's pro-am, Mickelson drove to the University of Georgia, where the chipping and putting greens mirror Augusta's lightning-quick conditions.

        “I spent a little time there,” he said, “just to get my short game sharp.”

        It was on Thursday. Mickelson birdied all four of the par-5s, largely because of impeccable irons.

        Starting on the back nine, he knocked a sand wedge within a few inches at No.10, then repeated the feat with a chip from the side of the green at No.6.

        “Ball striking can come and go, but the short game is all touch and feel,” said Mickelson, who won the BellSouth two years ago.

        He already has given plenty of thought to his chances of finally breaking through in a major. Mickelson expects to benefit from changes that lengthened Augusta National by about 300 yards.

        “I am much more confident heading into Augusta than any year, because I feel there are a handful of players that have a distinct advantage,” he said, counting himself in that group.

        While the BellSouth landed players such as Scotland's Colin Montgomerie (round of 69) and England's Lee Westwood (72) because of its pre-Masters positioning, four of the world's top five players are resting up for Augusta.

        That included No.1 Tiger Woods, who won the BellSouth in 1998 but hasn't been back since. He never plays the week before the Masters, a spot this tournament has occupied since '99.

        Elkington overcame a double-bogey to shoot a 64. But even with a victory this week, he'll be stuck at home for the first major of the year.

        The Masters qualifying period ended March 11, and the Australian didn't make it.

        “It's a little bit of a strange loophole,” Elkington said. “Someone could win last week and this week and still not be in. I think it's real strange that this week means nothing for next week.”

        LPGA: Fresh off a victory in the first major of 2002, Annika Sorenstam defends her title in the Office Depot Championship, which she won last year with an amazing comeback.

        “It's always fun defending a championship. I've got a lot of memories from last year,” Sorenstam said. “What can I say about Sunday of last year?”

        Last year's “fun week” included a closing day when Sorenstam rallied from 10 shots behind leader Pat Hurst heading into the final round. Sorenstam shot a 66, while Hurst struggled to a 77.

        Sorenstam then beat Mi Hyun Kim, who shot 65 to tie for the lead, on the first hole of a playoff.

        “I've always said it's never over until it's over, and that was the truth last year, so I'm looking forward to another fun week,” said Sorenstam, who won eight times last year and has 33 career titles.

        The tournament, played at Wilshire Country Club last year, will be at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, Calif., this time. The 54-hole event begins today with a purse of $1million, up $200,000 from a year ago.


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