PGA back at Southern Hills as Mickelson debates a return

The anticipation has been building the last few weeks for the PGA Championship, just like it was for the Masters. And just like the last major, it’s more about who plays than who has a chance to win.

There are differences, of course.

Social media tracked the private jet of Tiger Woods heading up to Augusta National a week before the Masters, raising hopes he could play just 14 months after a car crash in Los Angeles mangled his right leg and ankle. Sure enough, Woods walked and played well enough to make it to the weekend.

Phil Mickelson hasn’t been heard from in nearly three months.

The defending champion of historic proportions, Mickelson signed up for the PGA Championship on April 25, a matter of procedure. His manager said in a brief statement it was about Lefty keeping his options open.

Will he show up at Southern Hills next week to defend the title he won last year at age 50?

“If he’s there, great. You’re defending. I think of that historic win,” said six-time major champion and CBS analyst Nick Faldo. “I personally think it’s an unbelievable mental challenge to come back and play after what he’s put himself through. I don’t think it’s as easy as just getting back on the bike and arriving at a golf tournament and playing.

“The attention is going to be monumental.”

Woods hasn’t declared for certain that he will play another major, though he was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week to play — and walk — a practice round, and it would be a surprise if he didn’t play. Woods won the PGA Championship at Southern Hills the last time it was there in 2007.

For Mickelson, it’s not just about the golf.

His public image took a beating like never before in February when Alan Shipnuck, whose unauthorized biography of Mickelson is to be released next week, published an excerpt in which Mickelson outlined his involvement with a Saudi-funded rival league.

He was dismissive talking about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, saying it was worth getting involved if it meant having leverage to change how the PGA Tour operates. He even said he recruited three other players to pay lawyers to write the new league’s operating agreement.

Top sponsors dropped him, Mickelson released a statement that read more like an explanation than an apology, and he said he “desperately” needed time away.

Now it’s a matter of whether the PGA Championship is the time to return, one of several subplots to a major that is sure to provide intrigue even before the first shot is struck.

Woods was the last PGA champion who didn’t return in 2008 because he was recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Before that it was Ben Hogan in 1949 as he recovered from far worse injuries when his car was hit by a bus in West Texas.

Mickelson’s injuries were self-inflicted.

Facing the public and the press could be more daunting than trying to attack the Southern Hills greens that architect Gil Hanse reworked in a restoration project geared toward making the course a modern test without losing the charm of its original Perry Maxwell design.

Woods and Mickelson have been such an enormous part of golf for so long they still can overshadow the generation who would seem to have a better chance of hoisting that 27-pound Wanamaker Trophy.

That starts with a pair of Texans who head to the other side of the Red River to chase different versions of the Grand Slam.

Masters champion Scottie Scheffler has a long way to go, and while he rarely thinks about anything beyond the next shot, he likely is aware only three players in the last 20 years have won the first two majors of the year.

Even so, he has everyone’s attention with his four big titles in the last four months that have taken him to No. 1 in the world.

“He’s setting the bar pretty high right now and he’s kind of the guy to chase for all of us,” Will Zalatoris said. “What he’s doing is borderline Tigeresque. It’s pretty cool to see.”

Jordan Spieth is chasing the career Grand Slam. This is his sixth shot at the Wanamaker Trophy since he picked up the third leg at the 2017 British Open, and it might be his best chance. His swing is getting closer to where he can trust it, and his confidence was boosted by his playoff win at Hilton Head a month ago.

Spieth and Justin Thomas stopped by Southern Hills at the start of the week. Spieth last played it in 2009, when he lost in large playoff for the final four spots of match play in the U.S. Amateur. He shot 75. He was 16.

And so much has changed, especially with Southern Hills.

The most noticeable part of the restoration were the edges of the greens to make shots funnel away from the putting surface. Spieth felt the targets were smaller than they looked. And with a hydronic system beneath the greens that allows for greater control of turf firmness, Spieth is expecting a precise test.

“I think it’s going to be one of the higher scoring PGAs that we have seen,” he said.

Southern Hills is hosting its eighth major since 1958 — three U.S. Opens — and the last five champions are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

It wasn’t supposed to host the PGA until 2030. This year’s championship had been scheduled for former President Donald Trump’s course in Bedminster, New Jersey. But four days after the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as Congress was certifying the presidential election, the PGA of America voted unanimously to move it to Southern Hills.

It avoided what could have felt like a circus. Now it has one of a different variety.

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