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Phil Mickelson starts fast on quest for Match Play breakthrough

AUSTIN, Texas -- Phil Mickelson likes match play. He enjoys the concept of playing against just one player instead of an entire field. Catch him during a Tuesday practice round before a major championship, and he isn't grinding toward trying to post the lowest number possible. Instead, he's usually involved in a match with a few of his fellow playing competitors.

In theory, match play should like him right back. Mickelson has never been the steadiest player out here. He's actually just the opposite, his frequent birdie binges often interrupted by untimely bogeys and doubles and, well, what the leaderboard often terms "others."

The WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship should be the perfect marriage of these two phenomena. It's a tournament that should not only suit his disposition, it should suit his game. After all, numerous birdies are good, but a few big numbers won't spoil the whole day.

And yet, in a dozen previous appearances at this event, Mickelson has never won. Check that: He's never even come close. He's reached the quarterfinals just once -- back in 2004, the only time in those 12 tries that he's ever reached the weekend.

Even more curious, his singles record at the Ryder Cup (5-5-1) and Presidents Cup (3-5-3) is below .500 on those Sundays, leaving his overall match play career not just underwhelming, but perhaps underachieving.

How come? He wishes he had an answer.

"I don't have a great explanation for you," he said. "I love the tournament. I love playing in it. Things happen."

Things are happening so far this week, as well. But they might be different things than Mickelson is accustomed to witnessing at this tournament.

With a 5-and-4 victory over Daniel Berger on Thursday that followed a 5-and-3 win against Si Woo Kim one day earlier, Mickelson is now 2-0-0 and leading his group, meaning a win or tie against J.B. Holmes on Friday will guarantee he sees the weekend for just the second time. Even a loss will leave him in a sudden-death playoff to advance.

"I try not to put too much stock in the results," he explained after a round that included five birdies on the front nine. "I went out today and played the first eight holes and was 4 up; I just want to do that. I don't know how my opponent will play. If I just play solid golf, it should be enough."

If there's an unfortunate residual effect to Mickelson's strong play so far, it's that he's yet to see the final three holes on the course.

His practice round on Tuesday went through the 11th hole until he hit a bottleneck of groups in front of him and retreated to the front nine. Now he's closed out both matches without ever getting to the 16th hole.

He might not exactly be worried about this development, but if there's any reason for something less than full optimism, this would be it.

"I haven't played [the last three holes] in over a year," he said. "I haven't had a chance to play them this week, and I know I'm going to in some of these matches. So I'm a little bit concerned about that, because I don't know them as well as the others."

When told he could alleviate that concern by simply winning every match by the 15th hole, Mickelson smiled and shook his head.

"I understand that, but that will bite you," he said. "You'll have matches that go that far, and I'll be at a bit of a disadvantage."

He's right. Chances are, he'll have an opportunity to see those holes this week, just as he'll have an opportunity to finally improve upon a peculiarly mediocre match-play record.

In a format he enjoys, one that seemingly suits his game, this event should be right in Mickelson's wheelhouse, a tournament where it's surprising he hasn't already won.

When asked if he can look at a tourney like this one, see a hole in his résumé and hunger for the title just a little bit more, Mickelson was still on his A-game.

"You can," said the six-time U.S. Open runner-up, a sly grin coming across his lips. He then paused briefly and explained, "But this isn't the one."