Mickelson relishes return of Woods

Phil Mickelson is closer than he has ever been to the world No 1 spot ahead of this week’s World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play.

Retaining his Northern Trust Open title in Los Angeles has taken Mickelson to third in the rankings. He has been No 2 before, but has never been as little as 2.22 points behind Tiger Woods, whose eight-month injury lay-off ends in Tucson tomorrow. Like second-placed Sergio Garcia, Mickelson could be just two tournaments away from knocking Woods off top spot.

The left-hander (below) opens the Match Play against the 2007 US Open champion Angel Cabrera and is in the same half of the draw as Woods, who makes his return to action against Australian Brendan Jones.

Mickelson’s poor start to the season was put behind him with a one-stroke victory over Steve Stricker at the weekend, but it was a roller-coaster ride. Four clear after Saturday, he resumed with an eagle, but then had five bogeys and trailed Stricker by two with three holes to play. Birdies at the 16th and 17th rescued the situation and Stricker was the one who bogeyed the last to lose. “It wasn’t easy,” Mickelson said. “I need to become a better front-runner, but it gives me confidence and something to build on for the rest of the year.”

On the return of Woods, he said: “We need him back. We’re all excited to have him back and we’re excited he’s going to be 100 per cent. From a player’s point of view it’s going to be harder to win tournaments, but we love the challenge. I hope that he stays healthy because it’s evident the game of golf needs him, especially at this time right now. The economy has been struggling, the sponsors have been struggling – to have him back is so critical for the sport.”