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 yesterday. "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 was the runner-up a year ago at Firestone. 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 That has been replaced by hope that she will make a full recovery.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."
Mickelson is facing an 80-man field at Firestone, including one player who appears to be particularly sharp.
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 and has never finished out of the top five 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.