AKRON — The practice sessions have been a little sharper, his optimism much greater. Phil Mickelson isn’t sure how that will translate on the golf course, and he’s not sure that even matters at the moment.
Mickelson is simply thrilled to be back on the PGA Tour, for no other reason than he wasn’t expecting to play so soon.
It was only six weeks ago when his wife had surgery for breast cancer, about the time Mickelson’s mother discovered she also had breast cancer. While he chose not to go into details on their recoveries, that he is back to work said plenty.
“We’re in a much better place now than we were,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “I’m excited about that. I’m excited about the chance to play a little golf, too.”
He returns to competition at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished two shots behind a year ago. Then it’s off to Hazeltine for the PGA Championship, the final major of the year.
His turbulent summer has taken a toll.
Mickelson has played only twice since The Players Championship in May. A week later, he disclosed that his wife, Amy, had breast cancer. Doctors caught it early enough that surgery was pushed back to July, allowing Mickelson to play the St. Jude Championship and the U.S. Open, where he had a share of the lead until a record-setting fifth runner-up finish.
He once was consumed by fear of not knowing what Amy faced. That has been replaced by hope that she will make a full recovery.
“I feel we’ve been fortunate because of a couple reasons,” he said. “Both my mom and Amy have caught it early, and we’ve been able to have some wonderful care. And not only have the doctors been incredible in their science, but they’ve also been very compassionate toward us. We’ve had a great medical experience.
“We feel lucky to be — for a bad situation — in as good a situation as it can be.”
He declined to elaborate on the surgery or the recovery his wife and mother face because it’s not about golf. Mickelson doesn’t mind talking birdies and bogeys, the family vacations they love to take, even his hopes of being able to buy a chain of breakfast restaurants.
And while he was willing to go public with Amy’s cancer and his own emotions — breaking down in tears while driving — this part of the process is one that stays at home.
“It’s hard for me to really talk openly because it’s not involving me,” he said. “It’s involving Amy, it’s involving my mom, and it’s a personal issue with them. I want to respect their wishes and not go into too much detail. But I feel like we’ve been fortunate.”
His last shot in competition was tapping in for par at the Bethpage Black to close with a 70 — he was the only player to shoot par or better all four days at the U.S. Open — to finish two shots behind Lucas Glover.
It was his fifth runner-up finish in 11 years at the major that means so much to him. This one was far easier to take, realizing that he had bigger issues in life than posing with a silver trophy.
Mickelson didn’t return to practice until recently, which included a scouting trip to Hazeltine last week. Even so, he has tried to keep his mind active on golf, even sharing how he would rehearse shots while in the hospital.
“I expect to play like I always have,” he said. “When I had my nurse gown on, I would mentally rehearse shots and stuff to just kind of keep myself sharp, even though I wasn’t touching a club. So I think when I came back and was finally able to swing a club, I was able to play fairly decently.”
He faces an 80-man field at Firestone, including one player who appears to be particularly sharp, especially on this track.
Tiger Woods is coming off a three-shot victory last week in the Buick Open, and he returns to a course where his record is better than any other course he has played. Woods is a six-time winner at Firestone — same as Torrey Pines — although he has never finished out of the top five in his 10 appearances on this tree-lined course.
“First time I got a chance to play this was in ’97 and I love playing it. Over the years, I think it’s shown up in my record here,” Woods said. “And then obviously, playing against such a great field like this right before a major championship certainly helps.”
Woods missed this World Golf Championship for the first time last year because of knee surgery. Vijay Singh won his first tournament of the year by holding off Mickelson and Lee Westwood on the back nine.
Woods was a late arrival at Firestone and played his only practice round late Wednesday afternoon. After getting out of his car, he signed a golf bag for Chris Smith, whose wife was killed in an auto accident two months ago.
The bag is part of an auction and charity event being held for Smith on Friday. Woods signed right below Mickelson.
Despite his family’s own health concerns, Mickelson was keenly aware of a somber summer on the PGA Tour — Smith’s wife, Ken Green having his leg amputated in a crash that killed his brother and girlfriend; and Jonathan Byrd’s father dying of cancer.