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Is Phil Mickelson the new Tiger Woods role model?

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — As surely as the azaleas bloom off the 13th fairway, Phil Mickelson comes up with a way to reinvent himself each year at the Masters.

Funny Phil. Serious Phil. Thinking man's golfer one year, feel player the next.

About the only constant was that he always played left-handed.

This time, though, he's been spared the task of dreaming up a new persona. It's already been done for him.

He's the kind of guy Tiger Woods wants to be.

Devoted husband. Family man. Smiling. Generous. Friendly.

Nothing more profane than a "darn" coming out of his mouth.

The kind of guy you wouldn't mind seeing your sister date.

The guy you laugh with your buddies about in the locker room because he's out signing autographs by the hundreds while you're taking a steam.

The guy whose life suddenly looks so good now that yours has gone so bad.

So, Tiger, tell us.

Who's the phony now?

Not the lefty playing right behind you in a practice round Tuesday, that's for sure. No one could fake that kind of boyish enthusiasm for 18 holes under a broiling Georgia sun.

Not the player who sat in the interview room afterward talking hopefully about his wife's fight with breast cancer and the possibility his kids will get here in time to caddie for him in Wednesday's par-3 competition.

Certainly not the guy who refused to take the bait and criticize the best player in the world for being a plague on golf.

"He doesn't owe me an apology," Mickelson said. "I mean, in the last 12 years, he's done so much for the game of golf. I don't know if there's been an individual who has capitalized more on the opportunities that he's brought to the game of golf than myself. He doesn't owe me a thing."

Maybe not, but weren't you at least surprised that the player you've been chasing all these years was living a big lie all the time?

Shocked, perhaps, by the scope of the scandal that has enveloped Woods?

"I don't know. I mean, I don't know what to say there."

Mickelson has obviously decided to take the high road when it comes to the man whose career has always overshadowed his.

That's what role models do. And, strange as it may seem, Woods could do a lot worse than emulate Mickelson's style, if not his sometimes erratic game.

Because while Woods so far has talked a good game about showing more respect for golf and its fans, Mickelson has lived it for the better part of 20 years.

"I've always appreciated the fact that I get to play golf for a living," Mickelson said. "This is an amazing job or opportunity and to play some of the great courses, and of all places, Augusta National, and it's because people support the game. It's because people watch on TV. It's because people come out and support us, and I've just always been appreciative of that."

Woods hasn't, and that may be one reason he's been more successful than Lefty. Less distractions if you don't have to deal with the unwashed masses.

While Mickelson smiled and looked at the gallery, Woods scowled and looked straight ahead. While Mickelson stayed long after his Sunday round to sign autographs, Woods headed straight to his private jet to get away.

Mickelson also let his fans get a glimpse of his life, from the 1999 U.S. Open where he vowed to leave in the middle of the final round if his wife went into labor to the more recent struggles Amy Mickelson has had with cancer.

In Houston last week, his wife's doctor caddied for him for a few holes, and her surgeon also came out to watch.

"These two doctors have helped us in the toughest time of our life," Mickelson said.

Amy Mickelson's long-term prognosis is very good, Mickelson said, adding that she struggles now with medication and her quality of life. On the course, Mickelson wears a pink ribbon stitched into his hat in support of breast cancer awareness.

He comes to his 18th Masters mired in such a slump that he has cracked the top 10 only once so far this year. Many in golf expected him to flourish in the absence of Woods, but he made news only when fellow player Scott McCarron complained about the clubs he was using.

Still, he believes his game is coming around and he can win a third green jacket. He's got a chance if he can stay loose, as he did in the final round last year when he and Woods made a run at the leaders from way behind.

They had lunch together that day before teeing off, and shared a few laughs. There's nothing either would enjoy more than sharing a pairing in the final group this Sunday.

Both would have a chance to win, but for Woods there would be a bonus.

He could learn something from the kind of guy he now wants to be.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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