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Liguori: Surging Mickelson Is The Man To Beat At Baltusrol

By Ann Liguori
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SPRINGFIELD, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- The 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club starts Thursday morning and there are many pulling for Phil Mickelson to win golf's final major of the season, again.

Considering his exhilarating performance at the Open Championship two weeks ago and his past success on this course, it's hard to blame them. Mickelson's game is in fine shape.

"(It was) probably the best I've played and not won," Mickelson said of his final-round, bogey-free 6-under 65 at Royal Troon.

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Mickelson, who played a practice round at Baltusrol on Tuesday, was asked about any possible "hangover" he might experience this week after his tough second-place showing at the Open Championship, where he was neck and neck with Henrik Stenson during the fourth round before the Swede pulled away over the final few holes.

"I think it's one of those things where I'll look back over time and my disappointment will probably increase, because I think it's the first time in my career that I have played to that level of golf and not had it be enough to win a tournament," Mickelson said. "That's a disappointing thing because I would have loved to have added another Claret Jug. But because we have big tournaments coming up right now and because I am playing well, I don't want to let an opportunity, another really good opportunity, that I have to play a PGA Championship here at Baltusrol, at a course I like, while my game is sharp, and let the effects or disappointment linger."

Mickelson won the PGA Championship the last time the tournament was held at Baltusrol, back in 2005. He pitched out of the gnarly rough on the final hole to within two feet of the cup and then made birdie to beat Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn by one shot. That year, the tournament had to be finished on Monday because of lightning in the area late in the day on Sunday. Phil was 35 years old at the time and it was his second major championship victory following his 2004 Masters breakthrough. He has won three more majors since the 2005 PGA Championship -- the 2006 and 2010 Masters and the 2013 Open Championship.

Mickelson said he considers Baltusrol a special place and he's gotten close with Doug Steffen, the club's head professional who is retiring after 20 years. Steffen played practice rounds with Mickelson before the 2005 PGA Championship and offered advice on the nuances of the lower course. It certainly paid off and they've been friends ever since.

Mickelson is no stranger to this part of the Garden State, having spent considerable time at the Jersey Science Center in Jersey City.

"We've been having the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy for the last 11 years there," he said. "This is our 12th year and we just had it last week. I've spent a lot of time in the area here over the years and it's meant a lot to me to be part of the community here and to spend time."

He even gave a nod to Little Joe's Pizzeria.

"It's a great place to eat," Mickelson said.

With his fluid, low-impact swing, Mickelson has the potential to win more majors going forward, despite his advanced age. He turned 46 in June.

"I like the fact that, as a kid, I learned based off of kind of that Ernest Jones theory of swinging the club and quieting the body down and using the length of the arc and the swinging motion of the club to develop speed and so forth and feel and sensitivity," Mickelson said. "And I think that that has really helped me to play successfully in my mid-40s without having injury and having repercussions of having practiced so long for so many decades. And my instructors along the way, from Rick Smith and Butch Harmon and now Andrew Getson, have stayed consistent with that and not tried to change that."

Mickelson said his swing hadn't been on plane for a couple years and now that it's back on plane, he's more confident that "there's a really big window of opportunity to have some success. I'm having more fun playing because of it."

I'm picking him to win this week because of all of that. Mickelson gets started at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday and will play with Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. It should be a dynamic trio to watch.

Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori

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