Phil Mickelson has a spring back in his step again. 'Tis the season.

Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, won the Houston Open on Sunday. It was his first tournament victory since last year at Augusta National — and could be a harbinger of what takes place this week in the Masters.

He is the last player to take the Masters after winning the previous week. That was back in 2006 — just one of four times that has happened.

Despite his failure to truly take advantage of Tiger Woods's personal and professional struggles of the past 16 months — this week marks the first time Lefty has eclipsed his rival in the world rankings since 1997 — Mickelson has been the better man at Augusta National for much of the past decade.

Mickelson's wins in 2006 and 2010 were among the best showings by any golfer in the Masters in recent years, excluding Woods's awe-inspiring form in 2000 and 2001. Woods last won at Augusta in 2005.

Yet whereas Mickelson has been a man of spring, he has often fizzled in the summer. Instead of taking advantage of his green jacket victories, fallow patches have followed. He has battled personal issues, notably his wife's and mother's cancer diagnoses and subsequent treatments, and his own arthritis that came to light last year.

Those distractions — unlike with Woods, not of his own making — saw Mickelson fade from view last summer and his world ranking plummet. But this week, he is the favourite to win the Masters — the first time Woods hasn't been since 1997.

Mickelson has risen back to No. 3 in the world rankings, and a victory this week will cement his status as the best player in the world — both officially and in the minds of his peers.

Five others could rank No. 1, including Woods (7). The new ranking has five Europeans among the Top 7 players, with Martin Kaymer of Germany and Lee Westwood of England 1-2, respectively, followed by Mickelson (United States), Luke Donald (England), Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland) and Paul Casey (England).

Only Casey cannot emerge as the world's No. 1, even if he wins Sunday.

Despite Mickelson's rounding into form, much of the focus at Augusta, as always, is on Woods. Last year, he tied for fourth in his first tournament back from a self-imposed hiatus after his personal troubles became public knowledge. That result didn't tell the whole story, though, as Woods was within a shot of the lead until a couple of late bogeys.

Woods's game truly left him later last summer. There have been flashes of good play. But by and large, Woods hasn't come close to regaining his dominant form since his infamous car accident in late November 2009 and he hasn't won a tournament since the Australian Masters a few weeks before that.

"He is struggling," Nick Faldo told the Times of London. "He can't seem to get his mind or his body out of the way."

Continental Divide

There are other angles to watch this week.

Seven Europeans rank among the Top 10 players in the world, but the continent has only recently made inroads at major championships with Kaymer (PGA Championship) and McDowell (U.S. Open) winning last year. Previous to 2010, Padraig Harrington (three times) was the lone European to win a major title between 2000 and 2009.

For all its prowess, England — headed up by Westwood, Donald, Casey, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter — hasn't had a major champion since Faldo famously reeled in Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters.

It's tough to gauge Kaymer's chances. He deserves the No. 1 ranking, but he's missed the cut in all three Masters he's played in.

Another hex needing to be broken is a young gun coming through and slipping on a green jacket. Trevor Immelman did that in 2008, but he has largely struggled since then and his victory is generally viewed as one of the dullest in Masters history — hardly the stuff of a young player ascending to the world stage.

This year, young bombers like Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy and American hopefuls Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan come to Augusta playing the type of golf over the past year that suggests they could bag their first major crown.

Unfortunately, despite the course's lengthening that generally favours long hitters, Augusta hasn't exactly borne fruit for the youngsters who can crush it off the tee. In fact, one could argue that Mickelson's maiden major, the Masters in 2004, was symbolic of a player learning how to win at Augusta rather than having his talent do it for him.

To that end, veterans Steven Stricker and Matt Kuchar could be primed for their first major wins.

Other players crossing the precipice between youth and veteran status are two Euros — Scotland's Martin Laird and Spain's Alvaro Quiros. American Ryan Moore, who has played well at Augusta dating back to his days as an amateur, as well as Mark Wilson and Jonathan Byrd, should also start being part of the conversation.

The lone Canadian in the field is Mike Weir of Bright's Grove, Ont. The lefty's struggles have been well documented this season, and making the cut of Top 44 and ties — or those within 10 shots of the second-round leader — would be an accomplishment for the 2003 Masters champion.