Mickelson has rivals on knees as he drives on to The Masters

Reigning champion installed as favourite after superb third-round display in Houston
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The Independent Online

There is a clear favourite for this week's opening major of the season and for the first time in 14 years his name is not Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson displaced his nemesis at the top of the betting lists with a victory at the Houston Open last night which had "fourth green jacket" written all over it.

The left-hander won his first trophy since last year's Masters in stunning style. His 65 yesterday to see off the veteran Scott Verplank and the rookie Chris Kirk by three strokes, made him 16-under for the weekend. The 40th title of Mickelson's career took him back into the world's top five, lifting him above Woods in the rankings for the first time since 1997.

Woods was practising here yesterday, although did so knowing he would have fallen to world No 7 by this morning (England's Paul Casey also leapfrogs him). After playing 18 holes with Jeff Overton, he left the course mid afternoon. Maybe he rushed away to watch the coverage from the Redstone Golf Club. If he did, he would have seen a short-game master class.

The 40-year-old chipped in at the first and almost did again at the 18th. It had been a similar story in his nine-under 63 on Saturday. Indeed, his chip-in from a seemingly impossible spot on the sixth had Billy Foster, the caddy of Lee Westwood, falling to his knees and bowing in mock reverence. But this was not just Miracle Mickelson as he showed consummate control with his long-game. Mickelson has admitted struggling with visualising his shots. Well on these two round he was like Mystic Mick, seeing it, then hitting it. Remarkable.

It was all too easy to be impressed and believe this will be his Masters to lose, although many will look at this, his first Houston crown, and wonder why he hasn't reached the levels in the last 12 months. Perhaps it can be explained by a revelation from his manager yesterday. It was common knowledge that Mickelson had experienced the sudden onset of psoriatic arthritis in the months after his Masters glory, although not many were in the loop about how close it came to making him quit his profession.

"It was a lot more serious that people know," so Steve Loy told the Augusta Chronicle. "It was a lot more threatening to his career and his normal health than people know. We're very blessed to have the best medical treatment available. It's better than 100 per cent better, but he was not Phil Mickelson from three weeks before the US Open until just before the Ryder Cup."

These were clearly worrying times, yet perhaps it was the good humour of his wife which helped pull him through. Said Amy: "We always expected to grow old together – just not at 38 and 40."

Amy actually received treatment for breast cancer at a Houston hospital, making this another emotional win for Mickelson, who made repeated trips to the Oil City to be with his wife. "This has been a special place for us and I've been pleased to spend time with the people who have helped us over the last few years," he said.

And so Lefty heads to Augusta, and the scene of his biggest tearjerker. When Mickelson tapped in to deny Westwood by three strokes last year, his wife Amy was at the back of the 18th. The ensuing hugs provided an even stronger bond between Mickelson and the Georgia masterpiece. In truth, this is a love affair based on his profession.

"The golf course itself, as difficult and challenging as it is, when I go out through the gates I don't feel like I have to play perfect golf," explained the golfer who has won three of the last seven Masters. "I feel like I can make mistakes and still make pars. I don't have to drive it perfect. I can go in the trees and hit shots under the trees and up by the green somewhere and with my short game salvage par. At Augusta, I feel like skill and touch and short-game are always a factor."

Certainly he will not be at all concerned about those who doubt the merits of winning immediately before a major. Mickelson has done it all before. In 2006, the Bell South Classic led seamlessly into his second green-jacket performance. And his rivals are looking for any more ominous portents, then just like in 2006, Mickelson also intends to put two drivers in his bag at Augusta.

It is fair to say the strategy raised eyebrows five years ago. They will remain beneath the visors this time. "With the way the weather is turning out at Augusta I probably will [put two drivers in his bag]," said Mickelson yesterday. The forecast is set fair and the National course is set to play firm and fast and Mickelson is convinced another driver with steeper loft can help him gain vital yards. As if he needs another advantage.