MARANA, Arizona (Reuters) - Phil Mickelson is a veteran of 17 years on the PGA Tour but was taken aback by the media frenzy that greeted Tiger Woods in the Arizona desert early on Tuesday morning.
Back in action after an eight-month absence, Woods defends his title at this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and was watched by around 100 reporters and photographers when he teed off at 0700 local (2 p.m. British time) for a practice round.
“I’ve never seen so many cameras and photographers especially that early in the morning,” Mickelson told reporters at Dove Mountain’s Ritz-Carlton Golf Club.
”It’s pretty evident to see what he (Woods) has done for the game of golf. For us to have the most recognisable athlete in the world playing our sport is so fortunate for all of us.
“We’ve all been able to benefit from it and to have him back is awesome,” Mickelson said of the 14-times major champion.
“We are going to have more of a challenge winning golf tournaments certainly but also it will be more rewarding if we’re able to win.”
Woods has not played competitive golf since his remarkable U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines in June, having been sidelined by reconstructive knee surgery.
The world number one had not previously seen the monster Ritz-Carlton layout, which measures 7,833 yards off the back tees, and set off for 18 holes after warming up on the practice range.
Mickelson, who arrived at the range shortly before fellow American Woods, takes on Argentine Angel Cabrera in Wednesday’s opening round.
“He (Cabrera) is an incredible player,” said the world number three. “He won the (2007) U.S. Open, he hits the ball a long way and has great feel around the greens.”
Left-hander Mickelson will tee off in the opening World Golf Championships (WGC) event of the year fresh from victory at the Northern Trust Open on Sunday.
“It feels great to win and it always feels great to be back in contention,” the 38-year-old said. “It feels great to be able to pull through when I wasn’t hitting some of my best shots.”
Mickelson squandered a five-stroke lead before coming from two behind with three holes remaining to clinch his 35th PGA Tour title at Riviera Country Club.
“It’s also a platform for me to hopefully get better,” he added. “I had a good session with (swing coach) Butch (Harmon) this morning trying to improve on it and build my game up.”
Editing by Tony Jimenez