While the golf world focused on Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in another glitzy desert oasis far away in Abu Dhabi, Phil Mickelson had about as low profile of a day as possible on the eve of his season opener.
Fighting flu-like symptoms for more than a week, the 42-year-old Mickelson traveled to the Coachella Valley early Wednesday from his home in Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego. He registered for the Humana Challenge, but didn't play or practice at La Quinta Country Club — the site of his first round Thursday — or PGA West's two tournament courses.
Mickelson last spoke to the media Monday during a conference call for the Pebble Beach event, where he will go for a record-tying fifth victory next month.
"I have been sick. I've had what's going around," Mickelson said.
The illness cost him valuable practice time with instructor Butch Harmon in the area, leaving the 40-time PGA Tour winner a bit unprepared as he enters a stretch of five or six straight tournaments that will end at Riviera or the Match Play Championship.
"I haven't been able to work as hard as I have going into the season. Maybe that will be a good thing," Mickelson said Monday. "In the offseason, I had a couple of breakthroughs with my putting and driving. I'm really excited to start the year."
The left-hander is making his first start since tying for second in early November in the HSBC Champions in China, the only event he played after the Ryder Cup. He won the pro-am tournament long known as the Bob Hope Classic in 2002 and 2004.
"It's a great place to start the season," Mickelson said. "We usually have calm conditions, I have a great practice facility, there are three wonderful golf courses. It's a great place for me to start the season because it allows me to work on my game after each round. I have a private place at one of the clubs and I can put in the time to build a solid foundation for the rest of West Coast and the rest of the season."
Mickelson switched to a claw putting grip last year. He worked hard during the offseason on technique and started using Callaway's new line of putters that are painted black and white, which he believes will help him think less about alignment and more about the speed.
"It helps me not to be so technical at address," Mickelson said. "I'm able to get out into the putt. ... It has allowed me to putt without thinking."
FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker also is playing along with U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and Sony Open champion Russell Henley. Snedeker is the top-ranked player in the field at No. 8. No. 15 Simpson and No. 19 Mickelson are the only other top-20 players entered.
Last week in Hawaii, Henley became the first player in 10 years to win in his debut as a PGA Tour rookie. He broke the tournament record with a 24-under 256 total, the second-lowest score for a 72-hole tournament in PGA Tour history.
"The last few days has been kind of crazy," Henley said. "Last night was my first normal night of sleep. I finally have gotten a little sleep. I'm just really excited to be here and play another golf tournament."
Mark Wilson won the event last year for his fifth tour title.
"The year's gone by quickly," Wilson said. "Excited to be back in the desert. ... It's nice to be settled here at my in-laws over there at Ironwood. I feel like I'm back home."
In two player-friendly changes last year, the tournament was shortened from 90 to 72 holes and the foursome structure the first three days was switched from one pro and three amateurs to two pros and two amateurs.
"I like the new format where you play with another pro every day," David Toms said. "It's a little somewhat easier to concentrate, I would say, and feels more like a normal event. I think they have really tried to step it up as far as the environment for the players."
The celebrity competitors include Alice Cooper, Michael Bolton, Peter Gallagher, Craig T. Nelson and Carson Daly, football stars Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson, baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and hockey great Grant Fuhr.
"I don't come here to goof off," Daly said. "I want to play well."
DIVOTS: Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, has missed 16 consecutive cuts and has finished only one tournament — a tie for 70th in the AT&T National in July 2011 — in his last 28 events. ... David Duval shot a 59 on PGA West's Arnold Palmer Private Course in the final round of his 1999 victory. ... Arnold Palmer won the inaugural event in 1960 and added victories in 1962, '68, '71 and '73.