SAN DIEGO - The biggest crowd at Torrey Pines Wednesday formed a semicircle around the 10th tee to watch Phil Mickelson, who suddenly is more than a hometown hero. He is looked upon now to deliver star power in the absence of Tiger Woods.
Mickelson relishes just about any challenge that involves Woods.
Just not this one.
"Nobody will be able to . . . fill the shoes," Mickelson said.
Speaking for the first time since Woods' spectacular and sordid downfall led to an indefinite break, Mickelson didn't bother waiting for the first question at his news conference before the Farmers Insurance Open. He offered a pre-emptive strike filled with compassion and perspective, even if it was short on detail.
"The game of golf needs him to come back," Mickelson said. "It's important for him to come back and be a part of the sport.
"But right now, he's got a lot more important things going on in his life. Amy and I are good friends with both Tiger and Elin [Nordegren], and we care deeply about how this turns out. But I'm going to choose not to talk about it publicly anymore, and I appreciate your understanding on that."
More questions followed, although Mickelson refused to be drawn into a discussion on whether he can fill the void left by Woods or whether he was surprised by the amount of media coverage, from gossip magazines to standup routines on late shows.
He did confirm that he has tried to reach out to his longtime rival and had "limited communication. With the family - not necessarily saying with who in the family," Mickelson said.
No one has more to gain than Mickelson while Woods is away.
He is the No. 2 player - in the ranking, PGA Tour victories, television appeal - and even before details emerged of Woods' infidelity, Mickelson was poised to challenge him like never before. In their final PGA Tour event last year, Mickelson charged from behind in the final round of the Tour Championship for a three-shot victory over Woods.