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Mickelson defends all or nothing play

It is the gusto he craves, not the glory. It is the thrill of the journey rather than arriving safely at the destination. It is Phil Mickelson's approach to golf: aim for the pin or bust.

And if that means Mickelson never wins one of golf's most important championships, so be it.

Often accused of leaving his brain at the first tee and squandering his talent, Mickelson became defensive Friday while explaining his offensive style, one that has brought happiness and heartbreak in a 10-year PGA career.

Among other things, Mickelson contended he is one of the few players to stand up to Tiger Woods.

"I have won more tournaments than anybody playing

the game right now other than Tiger," Mickelson said. "And I haven't seen anybody step up to the plate and challenge Tiger the way I have, winning the '98 Mercedes, winning the 2000 Tour Championship, winning the 2000 San Diego tournament head-to-head with him.

"He's the best player in the game, and I am not going to back down from him. And I see these other guys wilt, and it's unbelievable to me that they haven't been able to play their best golf when he's in contention."

Mickelson followed a first-round 64 at the TPC-Sawgrass Stadium Course with 75 in cool, windy conditions that put him one stroke behind 36-hole leader Carl Paulson (69) at the Players Championship. Mickelson tied with Craig Perks (68).

The round was halted because of darkness, with 46 players still on the course. They will complete the second round this morning beginning at 7:50, with the third round set to begin at 11. Woods shot 72 and was at 143, five shots back.

But Mickelson was the hot topic, especially after he coolly explained his approach to tournament golf. Others may believe he has a penchant for imploding with a tournament in his grasp, but Mickelson said he plays to his personality.

Mickelson seemingly let another tournament get away Sunday at the Bay Hill Invitational when he led by one stroke with six holes left but finished tied for third, five shots behind Woods. Mickelson was questioned for trying to hit a shot through trees and over water to the 16th when a pitch out might have been the better play. He went for it all and hit the ball in the water.

"That's just Phil," said Chris DiMarco, who was tied for sixth, three back, and has competed against Mickelson since their college days. "Doesn't matter who is in the lead. He plays that shot. He's just thinking he can do everything. He never not believes in himself. Sometimes he gets in trouble and sometimes he hits the miraculous shot that gets on the green. If he feels like he can do it, he does it."

And if Mickelson tries the difficult shot, but it does not come off, he chalks it up to poor execution rather than poor planning.

"I won't ever change my style of play," said Mickelson, the second-ranked player in the world to Woods who has 20 career titles but no majors. Woods has six majors and 30 PGA Tour wins.

"I get criticized for it, but the fact is I play my best when I play aggressive, when I attack, when I create shots. That's what I enjoy about the game, that challenge. And if I were to change my style of play, I won't perform at the same level, nor would I enjoy the game as much."

Mickelson, 31, has admitted he expected to win multiple major championships by this point in his career. He won the Tucson Open as an amateur in 1991, won the U.S. Amateur and the NCAA title. And until Woods came along, he had more victories at an earlier age than anyone but Jack Nicklaus.

But the majors have been another story. He has 14 top 10s, no victories. His best opportunities came at the 1999 U.S. Open, where Payne Stewart holed a 15-foot par putt on the final hole to beat him by one, and at last year's PGA Championship where David Toms' 10-foot par putt on the final hole did the same thing. Mickelson also finished third to Woods at the 2001 Masters and tied for seventh at the U.S. Open.

"I have had a number of chances to win majors and I wouldn't have had those chances had I played any other way," he said. "Now I may never win a major playing that way, I don't know. I believe that if I'm patient, I will.

"But the fact is, if I change the way I play golf, I won't enjoy the game as much and I won't play to the level I have been playing. So I won't ever change. Not tomorrow, Sunday or at Augusta or the U.S. Open, or any tournament."

Mickelson said earlier in his career he tried to play more conservatively. He used the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, where he tied for 43rd, as an example.

"When things didn't go well, it upset me so much that I wasn't able to perform my best," he said. "Now if I hit a shot in the water on a par 5, I can live with that. If I make a bogey laying up, I have a tough time living with that. And I just feel like for me to play my best, I need to attack. That's the bottom line.

"I've taken it on the chin pretty good the last few years, but that's fine. It's just part of the deal for being on tour. But I'd rather be criticized for not winning than be criticized like a bunch of players for not putting themselves in a position to win."