(Reuters) - Phil Mickelson returns to one of his favorites venues for this week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, bidding for a record-equalling fifth victory before taking a short break from the PGA Tour for family time.
The American world number four claimed the most recent of his four titles in the picturesque surrounds of Pebble Beach Golf Links in 2012, and has been largely encouraged by his form so far this year.
He tied for second at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi Championship in his first start of 2014 and, though he withdrew after the second round of the Farmers Insurance Open the next week due to back pain, believes he is close to his best.
“My game is not far off, even though the score says that it is,” Mickelson told reporters, referring to his closing level-par 71 at last week’s Phoenix Open where he tied for 42nd.
”It was just a fraction off. My irons were what I struggled with but I drove the ball well, short game wasn’t bad, putting wasn’t bad. I have to go back to work on my iron play.
“The back feels great and I‘m looking forward to Monterey (this week).”
Two years ago, Mickelson charged to victory by two shots at Pebble Beach after firing a flawless eight-under-par 64 in the final round and he has long relished competing in the pro-am celebrity event staged on the beautiful Monterey Peninsula.
“It’s one of my favorite places to play golf,” said the five-times major champion. “It’s just a special week. We play three of the most amazing golf courses on tour and all combined in one week.”
The $6.6 million event will be played on three courses: the hosting Pebble Beach Golf Links and its sister venues Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Shore.
No matter how this week pans out for Mickelson, he will skip the next two events on the PGA Tour - the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles and the February 19-23 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona to spend time with his family.
“I have two weeks off,” said Mickelson, a 42-times winner on the U.S. circuit. “My kids are out of school and they’re both at different schools, so that’s two different spring breaks the week of LA and Match Play.”
Should Mickelson triumph on Sunday, he would emulate the achievement of fellow American Mark O‘Meara who won the tournament five times between 1985 and 1997 to earn the nickname ‘King of Pebble Beach’.
However, he faces a strong field this week which includes defending champion Brandt Snedeker, 2009 and 2010 winner Dustin Johnson, Australian world number 10 Jason Day and former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
McDowell won his only major title at the 2010 U.S. Open held at Pebble Beach and, like Mickelson, has long cherished competing on the par-72 coastal layout.
”Pebble Beach, it’s such a special venue,“ said McDowell. ”This is one of the most special golf courses in the planet.
“There’s a lot of golf courses in the world that kind of give you the goose bumps when you’re playing them ... but when you’re walking down 7, 8, 9, 10, it just is a beautiful place to play golf.”
Fans watching the golf this week will also have the added attraction of a plethora of celebrities taking part in the pro-am competition, among them actors Don Cheadle, Chris O‘Donnell and Kurt Russell, and musicians Kenny G and Kid Rock.
A late addition to the field is Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, whose team were routed 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Manning will join fellow NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith at Pebble Beach.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Gene Cherry