Mickelson takes long road to lead in Houston

Phil Mickelson watches his tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Houston Open.

Phil Mickelson watches his tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Houston Open.

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3:24:01 AM ET. 04/19/2014




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HUMBLE, Texas -- Posting two uninspiring results on the Florida Swing. Bypassing a practice round at the Shell Houston Open in favor of two scouting days at Augusta National. Shooting a near-flawless 65 Friday to sit atop the leaderboard after the completion of Round 1.

Yep, just another unorthodox -- and ultimately flawless -- game plan from defending champion Phil Mickelson.

Lefty was back to his old tricks at Redstone, seemingly picking up where he left off a year ago, when he shot 16 under on the weekend (63-65) to capture his only title of 2011. His round of 65 Friday tied him for the early lead but left little time for reflection; his second round was scheduled to begin in an hour.

“I like being able to play a lot of holes in one day,” Mickelson said. “If you’re playing well, you can get in a rhythm and really make a lot of birdies, especially out here.”

Mickelson is aiming for his second PGA Tour title of the season, after winning convincingly at Pebble Beach in February. The following week, he lost in a playoff at Riviera. He skipped the WGC-Match Play to take a family vacation, then returned on the Florida Swing and battled bouts of inconsistency, tying for 43rd (Doral) and 24th (Bay Hill).

Instead of playing a practice round in Houston, Mickelson took a scouting trip to Augusta National, playing on Monday and Tuesday with Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley. It seemed to work out OK.

On Thursday, Mickelson played only three holes (1 under) at Redstone before strong storms blew through the Houston area and dumped 1 1/4 inches of rain. When he returned early Friday morning, the wind was down, the course soft, the hole locations accessible. Lefty birdied four of the first six holes he played, moving to 5 under, then tacked on another birdie on 12. But on the par-5 13th, he drew a mud ball in the fairway and pushed his second shot into the hazard, leading to a bogey.

“The only downside was every ball that hit in the fairway had a clump of mud,” said Mickelson, who managed to close with birdies on 15 and 16. “But the conditions were so good that you could really get aggressive.”

Mickelson described the greens at Redstone as “perfect.” He required only 22 putts in Round 1, the continuation of his strong season with the flatstick. (He’s third in the PGA Tour’s strokes-gained putting statistic.)

“When you get greens like this, so true, you feel like you should make everything,” he said.

One of Mickelson’s fellow playing competitors, Fred Couples, also went low in Round 1, birdieing three of his last four holes to shoot 67 and sit two shots back of the leaders. Earlier this week, Couples, who won last Sunday on the Champions Tour, said this would be his final regular Tour event of the year, but perhaps for good. “Hopefully, if I don’t embarrass myself,” he said, “I’ll get a spot here next year and come back and play.”

The 52-year-old, who went to school at the University of Houston, always seems to play well at this event, especially lately. In 2008-09, he finished T-4 and T-3, respectively, and he’s made the cut at the Houston Open in 18 consecutive starts.

“It’s kind of an exciting time before Augusta,” Couples said, “and I seem to get the juices up.”

Unlike Mickelson, Couples said he was dreading the start of Round 2, the 33-hole day. “Of course I am,” he said. “Last week in Mississippi, I one-handed half of them, and out here you can’t really do that. We’ll see what happens. I’ll struggle my way around.”

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