Houston, we no longer have a problem. It was the news all America was waiting to hear. Phil Mickelson will go to the Masters ball, which was not at all certain after he pulled a muscle a week ago at the Valero Texas Open. The lack of Tiger Woods had thrown broadcasters and tournament organisers into a tail spin. The absence of Mickelson, who withdrew after 10 holes of his third round last week, would have been a disaster for the American audience at an event that means more than any other in the golfing calendar.
But, thanks in part of a nifty treatment device that fits in his suitcase, he was able to complete the first round of the Houston Open this week without discomfort. He went into the weekend tied ninth on 6 under par. More than that it allowed him an early sighting of Augusta, where, before arriving at Houston, he was able to work those irons into the greens in prep for a tournament he has won three times.
"I feel a lot better," Mickelson said. "I travel with a light therapy machine, and I got on it right away. I think that made a world of difference as far as expediting the healing process to where it doesn't hurt any more. It just feels sore like I was working out, as opposed to kind of a painful experience."
After Woods, the Mickelson narrative is the one America clings to most. The big plot line this year refers to the US Open at Pinehurst, where victory would complete the major set after his dramatic triumph at The Open at Muirfield last year. That said, the Masters defines him. The wide open spaces and complexity of the greens fit the Mickelson template beautifully, his brilliance around the greens compensating thrillingly for his inconsistency off the tee.
The pairing of Mickelson and Woods on the final day in 2009 provided an epic diversion to the fight for the green jacket won by Angel Cabrera after a play-off. Neither was expected to challenge yet the trading of birdies saw them rattle the leaders, with Mickelson equalling the Augusta record of six strikes against par on the outward nine. The duel with Carbrera and Kenny Perry was a sideshow until Mickelson rinsed his ball at the iconic par-three 12th.
The importance of Woods to the Masters is revealed in statistics supplied by sports analysts Repucom. The tournament provides sportwear giants and club manufacturers like Nike and Titleist with their biggest platform, amounting to 20 per cent of annual exposure. And from Woods, Nike gains three times the value of brand exposure than their next best client, Rory McIlroy. According to the ranking matrix deployed, Woods generated media value worth $3.8 million (£2.29m) at last year's tournament.
Without him broadcasters are looking for the next American to step up to partner Mickelson around Amen Corner. Foremost on the list of contenders was Dustin Johnson, the big-hitting boy from the Carolinas. That idea turned to mud in Texas on Thursday when Johnson withdrew after a round of 80.
Patrick Reed volunteers himself for the slot after his victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral last month. Reed was so pleased with progress, the win was his third on the PGA tour, he declared himself a top-five player in the world. Reed announced himself a fortnight after his 23rd birthday last August with victory at the Wyndham Championship. His second win came in January at the Humana Challenge. At the present rate of return he is due another success, no matter that the Masters is his first experience of major golf.
Reed's breakthrough win came in a play-off at the expense of another young Texan around whom there is much excitement, Jordan Spieth. The 20-year-old turned pro in 2012 after bringing his amateur career to a close at the Walker Cup in Aberdeen. He recorded his first win in his rookie season on the PGA Tour last year and stands 13th in the world rankings, nine places higher than Reed.
Harris English is another young American making impressive strides, though the most likely threat to Mickelson is likely to come from Northern Ireland and Australia. Rory McIlroy assumed Woods' place at the top of the betting, with defending champion Adam Scott not far behind. Both have blown winning positions on the PGA Tour this year but that should not be held against them.
McIlroy is approaching the form that took him to a four-shot lead on the final day three years ago and Scott led by seven at half way a fortnight ago at Bay Hill. He's unlikely to lose concentration here.
Kuchar takes lead as Garcia slips away
Matt Kuchar overcame windy conditions to match the low round of the day and take a four-shot lead after three rounds of the Houston Open in Texas.
The six-time PGA Tour winner had three straight birdies on the back nine at the Golf Club of Houston to overtake the second-round leader Sergio Garcia with a four-under par round 68 — leaving him on 15 under overall heading into the final round.
Kuchar's last win came at the Memorial last year. He enters the final round today four shots ahead of the Spaniard and his fellow American Cameron Tringale.
Tringale shot a three-under 69 in the third round, while Garcia struggled his way to a one-over 73. Phil Mickelson shot an even-par 72 to end the day on six under.