SAN DIEGO — The biggest crowd at Torrey Pines on Wednesday formed a semicircle around the 10th tee to watch Phil Mickelson, who suddenly is more than a hometown hero. He is looked upon now to deliver star power in the absence of Tiger Woods.
Mickelson relishes just about any challenge that involves Woods.
Just not this one.
"Nobody will be able to … fill the shoes," Mickelson said.
Speaking for the first time since Woods' spectacular and sordid downfall led to an indefinite break, Mickelson didn't bother waiting for the first question at his press conference before the Farmers Insurance Open. He offered a preemptive strike filled with compassion and perspective, even if it was short on detail.
"The game of golf needs him to come back," Mickelson said. "It's important for him to come back and be a part of the sport. But right now, he's got a lot more important things going on in his life. Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin, and we care deeply about how this turns out.
"But I'm going to choose not to talk about it publicly anymore, and I appreciate your understanding on that."
More questions followed, although Mickelson refused to be drawn into a discussion on whether he can fill the void left by Woods or whether he was surprised by the amount of media coverage, from gossip magazines to standup routines on late shows.
He did confirm that he has tried to reach out to his longtime rival and had "limited communication."
"With the family — not necessarily saying with who in the family," Mickelson said.
No one has more to gain than Mickelson while Woods is away.
He is the No. 2 player — in the ranking, PGA Tour victories, television appeal — and even before details emerged of Woods' infidelity, Mickelson was poised to challenge him like never before.
In their final PGA Tour event, Mickelson charged from behind in the final round of the Tour Championship for a three-shot victory over Woods. The last time they competed was in the final round of the HSBC Champions in Shanghai. They played in the final group, and Mickelson turned a two-shot lead over Woods into a six-shot margin at the turn and went on to victory.
The turnaround for Mickelson came in September when he hooked up with former PGA champion Dave Stockton, who persuaded Mickelson to go back to his old style of putting. Mickelson started making everything, a frightening complement with work he has done on his long game. For the first time, Mickelson believes his driving is a weapon instead of a weakness.
With some 100 fans gathered around, he sent his tee shot well right of the fairway, the bunker and the rough until it settled in a small cluster of trees near the adjacent 18th fairway.
Mickelson simply laughed.
"So much for my driving," he said.
He is more at ease with himself, on the golf course and at home. Mickelson spent the last two days in Houston getting more cancer treatment for his wife. He says the long-term prognosis is good, although he knows better to take anything for granted with cancer.
Even so, he said the "scary time" is over.
Mickelson is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines, although he hasn't seriously contended since the South course was revamped and the greens were rebuilt to get ready for the 2008 U.S. Open. He believes he finally has it figured out.
The timing couldn't be better.
While the Farmers Insurance Open has the prime spot on the West Coast schedule — played during the one-week break before the Super Bowl — the field at Torrey Pines never had been particularly strong. It only looked that way because it featured Woods and Mickelson, the top two draws in golf.
Mickelson is among three players from the top 20 — the others are Robert Allenby and Ernie Els.
Storms swamped the courses last week, and while they are in good shape heading into the opening round, officials could only get lawn mowers in the rough on Tuesday. It was still thick, prompting Allenby to say as he studied his ball in the left rough Wednesday, "We played a U.S. Open here already. Are we playing another one?"
The U.S. Open is the biggest trophy missing from Mickelson's collection, and he's hopeful this is the year he wins that and so many other prizes that have eluded him — a money title, PGA Tour player of the year, even No. 1 in the world.
"My whole career, I've been trying to get to No. 1," Mickelson said. "I just haven't had much success. But this year, whether or not Tiger is in the field, I still believe that this is an opportunity for me to compete in majors, to challenge him. I've had some great head-to-head success in the last year or two, and I expect this year — with or without him — to be one of the best years of my career."
Still, he made no secret of his hopes for Woods. Mickelson wants him back, for himself and the sport.