PGA back to Southern Hills as Mickelson skips title defense | Sports News

By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer

Anticipation had been building in recent weeks for the PGA Championship, as it had for the Masters. And just like the last major, the hype was more about who played than who had a chance of winning.

Tiger Woods didn’t just play Augusta National, he made the cut.

Phil Mickelson won’t even hit the first tee at Southern Hills.

Six days before the opening round at the classic course in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mickelson decided not to defend his title and to extend his three-month hiatus from golf.

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And to think that was just a year ago when Mickelson celebrated one of the most astonishing feats in 161 years at the majors. He won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island at age 50 to become golf’s oldest great champion.

The last PGA champion who didn’t defend was Woods in 2008 while recovering from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Before that, it was Ben Hogan in 1949, who was nearly killed about four months earlier when a bus hit his car in West Texas.

Mickelson’s wounds were more self-inflicted. He kept everyone guessing when he signed up for the PGA Championship on April 25, even though it was a procedural matter. His manager said Lefty was just keeping his options open, then he closed them on Friday.

“Personally, I think it’s an incredible mental challenge to come back and play after what he’s been going through. I don’t think it’s as simple as getting back on the bike and getting to a golf tournament and playing, said six-time major champion and CBS analyst Nick Faldo.

Mickelson is sure to be a subject one way or another. Alan Shipnuck’s unauthorized biography of Mickelson is due out Tuesday.

His public image took a hit in February when Shipnuck published an excerpt from his book in which Mickelson described his involvement in a rival league funded by Saudi Arabia.

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

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

Now it’s a question of when he comes back. Its absence seems glaring, one of many subplots in a major that is sure to spark intrigue before the first shot is even fired.

Woods hasn’t said for sure he’ll play another major, though he was in Tulsa last week playing — and walking — 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 he was there in 2007.

It’s not exactly the same course. Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner have completed a restoration project in Southern Hills aimed at making the course a modern test without losing the charm of its original Perry Maxwell design.

In addition to bringing back a stream that runs through the 10th and 17th fairways, the edges of the greens now direct shots away from the putting surfaces rather than towards the center, emphasizing being in the fairway and on the corner right according to the spindle.

Woods has cast such a huge shadow over the sport for so long that it’s easy to overlook the strongest field of the four majors and who could best have a shot at hoisting that 27-pound Wanamaker Trophy.

It starts with a pair of Texans heading across the Red River to chase different versions of the Grand Slam.

Masters champion Scottie Scheffler still has a long way to go, and while he rarely thinks of anything but the next move, he probably knows that only three players over the past 20 years have won the first two major tournaments in the year.

Still, he’s grabbing everyone’s attention with his four major titles in the past four months that have propelled him to the No. 1 spot in the world.

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

Jordan Spieth is aiming for a career Grand Slam. This is his sixth shot at the Wanamaker Trophy since winning the second leg at the 2017 British Open, and it may be his best chance. His swing is approaching one he can trust, and his confidence was boosted by his playoff win at Hilton Head a month ago.

Spieth and Justin Thomas stopped by Southern Hills earlier this week. Spieth last played him in 2009, when he lost in the playoffs for the final four match play spots in the US Amateur. He shot 75. He was 16 years old.

And so much has changed, especially with Southern Hills.

The most notable part of the restoration was the edges of the greens to direct shots away from the putting surface. Spieth felt the targets were smaller than they looked. And with a hydronic system under the greens that allows better control of turf firmness, Spieth expects an accurate test.

“I think it’s going to be one of the most successful PGAs we’ve seen,” he said.

Southern Hills is hosting its eighth major since 1958 – three US 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 was scheduled for former President Donald Trump’s course in Bedminster, New Jersey. But four days after the violent Jan. 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol as Congress certified the presidential election, the PGA of America voted unanimously to move it to Southern Hills.

He avoided what might have looked like a circus. And with Mickelson no longer on the court, the PGA Championship has avoided one of a different variety.

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