Phil Mickelson battling to be fit for Augusta

Phil Mickelson withdrew from the Valero Texas Open with a strained side at the weekend.  Picture: AP
Phil Mickelson withdrew from the Valero Texas Open with a strained side at the weekend. Picture: AP
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PHIL Mickelson, the Open champion, has joined Tiger Woods and Jason Day in becoming an injury worry heading into the opening major of the season, next week’s Masters.

It follows Mickelson, a three-times winner at Augusta National – most recently in 2010 – withdrawing from the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio after 11 holes in Saturday’s third round with a strained side.

He still hopes to play in this week’s Shell Houston Open but that will depend on what his doctor has to say back home in San Diego, where Mickelson returned after his premature exit.

“My back’s feeling great, my body’s been feeling great,” said the five-times major winner, who’d made a birdie from the water on his final hole in the second round to survive the cut by the skin of his teeth in the company of defending champion Martin Laird.

“I felt as good as I have all year,” added the 43-year-old, who won last year’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart then completed a fairytale double in the home of golf by adding the Open Championship at Muirfield seven days later.

“My speed is back, I was hitting the ball hard, driving it great. I pulled a muscle on my downswing trying to hit the ball hard on the second hole [his 11th]. It just killed and it wouldn’t subside for 10 or 12 seconds.

“I’m going to go back to San Diego for a couple of days and have a doctor take a look at it, but there’s really not much you can do for a pulled muscle. I hope I’ll be OK to play the [Shell Houston Open] but I just don’t know.”

According to Australian Stuart Appleby, who was in Mickelson’s group on Saturday along with American John Merrick, it was apparent that the world No 5 had been struggling.

“He had hit a few poor shots but it was the first hole of our back nine when I really noticed there was something wrong, as he just didn’t look right,” said Appleby.

“Then he sort of feathered one down the next and that was it. He then came over to John (Merrick) and myself and said: ‘Look guys, I think something’s going on in my back and I’m out of here’.

“He had been saying his back was fine, but then we’re all getting to that age when these things start happening in our bodies.”

Mickelson now faces a race against time to be fully fit for The Masters, the same position world No 1 Woods finds himself in following recent back problems.

Woods, who has played every Masters since 1995, pulled out as defending champion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill a fortnight ago and said last week that it was a “little too soon (to know)” if he’d be fit for Augusta.

A four-times winner there, he’s never claimed the Green Jack without claiming a victory earlier in that season but he’s not even come close in outings on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour this year.

Day, the world No 4, is set to head into The Masters without playing in a stroke-play event since the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in early February. It follows the Australian suffering a thumb injury when claiming victory in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona just after that then being forced to miss the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his last pre-Masters event.

Speaking then, Day, who has finished runner-up and third on recent visits to Augusta, said: “The big thing is I need to get it right and ready for the Masters. Missing these two tournaments is frustrating and annoying but it is nothing in the big picture.”

Day is no stranger to injury around Masters time, having withdrawn from the 2012 event with an ankle injury after deciding to try to play through pain. “If I get to Augusta and it is like this, which I am hoping it isn’t, I don’t know what I will do,” he added back at Bay Hill.

“Hopefully worst-case scenario is just a small bit of pain I can try to work through and best case it is gone away and I can play golf without flinching at the ball.”

Gladly, Stephen Gallacher has no such injury worries and, after helping Europe secure a draw in the inaugural EurAsia Cup in Malaysia at the weekend, his Masters debut will be rubber-stamped when today’s latest world rankings are published.

But, with Laird’s final chance disappearing as he missed the cut in San Antonio and Russell Knox heading into yesterday’s last round there 11 shots behind the leader, Australian Steven Bowditch, Gallacher will only have one other Scot, 1988 winner Sandy Lyle, for company next week.

Neither Laird or Knox are in the field in Houston, where the final spot will be on offer.