(Photo: Wikipedia)

While all eyes may be on Nike’s newest star, Rory McIlroy, as he and Tiger Woods kicked off their 2013 seasons in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, old hand Phil Mickelson hoped to get off to a running start closer to home at this week’s Humana Challenge.

And though he may be playing second fiddle to the wearers of the Swoosh, and hoping that lingering flu-like symptoms would not hamper him, Lefty was looking forward to shaking off the rust in a tournament he has won twice. The world’s 19th-ranked player, Mickelson was scheduled to tee off No. 1 at La Quinta Country Club Thursday at 12:10 p.m. ET.

The Humana will be the first of five consecutive events for Mickelson, who had two strong outings at the start of last season — a win at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and a share of second at the Northern Trust Open. But then he hit a speed bump that saw him collapse at the Masters, despite sharing third place, and finish 25th or lower in nine of his next 10 events.

Mickelson ended his season on a high note, with a share of fourth at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, a tie for second at the BMW Championship, a stellar showing with partner Keegan Bradley (3-0 in team competition) at the Ryder Cup, and a share of second in his season-ending HSBC Champions.

With a new Callaway Versa putter in the bag and a claw grip he put into play at The Barclays in September, the ever-upbeat Mickelson was philosophical about his mid-season slump.

“Going through that three- or four-month stretch of very poor play forced me to go back and analyze what I was doing well,” he said Monday on his website. “Iron play always has been a strong point but I was having to make two different swings with my driver and irons.

“It was a good stretch for me to go through,” Mickelson added. “My game got better each week all the way through the Ryder Cup and the HSBC Champions in China. I don’t think I would have gotten to that point if I didn’t go through a stretch that forced me to analyze each area of my game.”

Mickelson was also looking forward to defending his Pebble Beach title in three weeks. For sure, finishing with an 8-under 64 and trouncing Woods when the two went head-to-head in the final round was the highlight of his season.

“It’s certainly the best round and best tournament I had all last year,” Mickelson told the Monterey Herald. “In some cold and difficult conditions, I was able to have control of my golf ball, putted extremely well and doing it with somebody I enjoy playing my best with more than just about anybody in Tiger. It was really a fun week.”

Also in the field this week are several members of Team New England. While Jerry Kelly, Scott Stallings, and J.J. Henry have already worked out some of the kinks at the season-opening Tournament of Champions and/or last week’s Sony Open, James Driscoll and Brett Quigley will make their first starts of the new year.


Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. You may follow Kay on Twitter @golfexaminer