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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mickelson makes first appearance of golf season at Buick Invitational

Doug Ferguson Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — Vijay Singh is fresh off a victory in Hawaii, and still one of the last guys to leave the range. Tiger Woods had a close call at Kapalua, and Ernie Els is kicking himself for two chances that got away.

As for Phil Mickelson?

“A little rusty, as usual,” Mickelson said Wednesday.

Mickelson and Davis Love III are the only PGA Tour players among the top 15 in the world who have not played this year. Mickelson waited until the Buick Invitational in his hometown to make his 2005 debut.

He has a tough act to follow in many respects.

For one thing, his last competitive round was a 59 in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Hawaii.

“That’s going to be tough to do out here,” Mickelson said with a sly grin, realizing that the South Course at Torrey Pines, where he plays his first round of the year today, will hold the U.S. Open in three years.

He also is coming off a magical year in which he won his first major at the Masters, was a combined five shots away from winning all four majors, and was in Sunday contention at every tournament through early May.

“My expectations are certainly higher because I came so close last year,” he said. “I was in contention at all four, and I had a great opportunity on the 18th hole to win them.”

But there’s no time to waste.

Singh, Woods and Els — known these days as “The Big Three” — already are off to a great start.

Lefty is about to join the fray.

“I think what makes it so exciting is that we have so many guys now that are playing well, and so many guys that are challenging to win tournaments,” Mickelson said. “It makes the journey and the challenge of winning tournaments tougher, but it’s more rewarding if you can accomplish it.”

The strongest and deepest field of the year has all the trappings of a big tournament, unusual for this early in the season.

Then again, this is the earliest the PGA Tour has come to Torrey Pines since 1962, when Bob Goalby held off a late charge by Gay Brewer.

Mickelson didn’t make his debut until the third week last year, and he won the Bob Hope Classic in his first start.