San Diego:Phil Mickelson was unequivocal - he was not here to talk about Tiger Woods.
As Mickelson sat down in a lounge chair in the media tent Wednesday for his first interview session since Woods's personal life began its public unraveling on Thanksgiving weekend, he offered a pre-emptive strike.
Before he would take questions, Mickelson said, there were a few topics he wanted to address.
"The first is obviously Tiger," Mickelson said. "That's a common topic. The game of golf needs him to come back. I mean, it's important for him to come back and be a part of the sport. But right now he's got a lot more important things going on in his life. Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin." Mickelson was referring to Woods's wife.
"We care deeply about how this turns out," Mickelson continued. "But I'm going to choose not to talk about it publicly anymore and I appreciate your understanding on that."
Understanding or not, when Mickelson and the rest of the field tee off Thursday at Torrey Pines, it will be the start of a new normal for the PGA Tour. Woods, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence after reports of extramarital affairs, has taken sponsors with him and will probably take spectators and television viewers, too.
It also leaves a void atop the field. Woods missed parts of 2007 and 2008 while recovering from knee surgery, but the questions about his return - when and in what shape? - were in degrees. Now, who knows?
Mickelson is the heir apparent, because of both his standing as the No. 2 golfer in the world after his strong finish to 2009 and his longstanding role as a foil to Woods. That contrast in personas was reinforced Wednesday when Mickelson said he would skip the Match Play Championship Feb. 17-21 in Tucson to take a family vacation that was postponed because of the cancer treatment schedules of his wife and mother.
Mickelson will turn 40 this year, and his sometimes doughy midsection has noticeably firmed, something he believes will add distance and accuracy to his driver, long considered the weak link in his game.
Mickelson's gift of charm and his ability to finesse his way around a question have clearly not been dulled. Asked if he had called or sent text messages to Woods, Mickelson said he had limited communication with the Woods family. Pressed if he had contact with Tiger, Mickelson said, "With the family, not necessarily saying with who in the family."
Asked for his reaction to the news media coverage of Woods, Mickelson turned the tables on the questioner.
"That's what you guys do for a living," he said. "How do you feel it was covered? I don't know."
Mickelson, who beat Woods by three strokes at the Tour Championship last September, deflected questions about voids to fill. But preparing to start his season on a course he grew up playing, in a tournament he has played each of the last 20 years, Mickelson made it clear he was prepared to challenge himself.
"My whole career I've been trying to get to No. 1," Mickelson said. "This year, whether or not Tiger is in the field, I still believe that this is an opportunity for me to compete in majors, to challenge him. I've had some great head-to-head success in the last year or two, and I expect this year with or without him to be one of the best years of my career."