HUMBLE, Texas (AP) — Phil Mickelson has never shied away from suspense, though it's usually limited to his play.
The four-time major winner, who withdrew from last week's Texas Open after pulling a muscle in his right side, waited as long as possible to end the guessing about whether he would play this week ahead of the Masters.
Mickelson finally announced his intentions to indeed play at this week's Houston Open on Wednesday afternoon through a post on his website. The decision came after two days of "light practice" at Augusta National, where Mickelson said his side "felt sore as opposed to hurting."
"I feel that to give myself the best chance at the Masters I have to play in Houston," Mickelson said. "If I thought I would injure myself further I would have withdrawn from the tournament, but the last few days have been good."
Mickelson didn't play in Wednesday's pro-am, fueling speculation that he might withdraw from the tournament he won in 2011. However, tournament director Steve Timms said that had been planned for six weeks — long before his injury. Timms said Mickelson had already agreed to take part in a sponsor dinner rather than play in the pro-am.
The world's No. 5 player helped solidify the Houston Open's spot as a preferred Masters tuneup by committing to play in 2008 and every year since. He finished 16th last year. Mickelson's return to the 7,441-yard Golf Club of Houston — formerly known as Redstone Golf Club before an ownership change — highlights a stellar field that features the winners of 34 major championships. It's a field that includes Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, among others, as well as defending champion D.A. Points.
First and foremost, they're after the winner's share of the $6.4 million event — while also using the course's slick greens and tight rough to prepare for the Masters. After a schedule change last year, the tournament is back in its normal slot.
And that's just fine with McIlroy, who tied for 45th at the event last year while still in the infant stages of a club change. "It's brilliant," McIlroy said. "They get the fairway heights the same, the rough heights the same, the runoff around the greens ... It's perfect for that."
McIlroy finished 19th at the Houston Open in 2009 before missing the cut a year later. The former world No. 1 was winless on the PGA Tour last year, though he has been trending upward since — including a win over Adam Scott in the Australian Open in December.
He finished second at the Honda Classic last month before tying for 25th at Doral. McIlroy took the last three weeks off leading into the Houston Open— a big change from last year when he decided to play the Texas Open only days ahead of time. Even with Augusta National looming, McIlroy said he's fully focused on competing this week.
"I think it's important to finish well," McIlroy said. "I don't think there's any better way to prepare than getting yourself into contention and playing golf under pressure, because that's ultimately what you want to do next week."
Points sank a 13-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to win last year, winning by one stroke over Stenson and Billy Horschel. The American hasn't finished higher than 28th this year, including missed cuts in each of his last two tournaments, but his confidence is high this week.
"Knowing that I've had success here, and it's cool to be out there," Points said. "Makes you feel like, 'Hey, I can do that again.'" Mickelson tees off Thursday morning with Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, with the threesome of Texas native Jimmy Walker, Stenson and Matt Kuchar behind them.
McIlroy's threesome with Dustin Johnson and Luke Donald begins in the afternoon, followed immediately by a group including Jordan Spieth, Garcia and Steve Stricker.