PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – As Phil Mickelson’s approach at Pebble Beach’s picturesque, par-5 18th hole bounded off a stone retainer wall, caroming into the icy Pacific Ocean to forever swim with the seals, the big left-hander had to pause to wonder if his chances at the 110th U.S. Open – all of nine holes old – weren’t teetering on the rocks, too.
The ill-advised risk – ripping 3-wood from right-side rough into a stiff, chilly breeze into a green he likely wasn’t going to reach – led to a third consecutive bogey on his opening nine, and Mickelson was left to play catch-up on a slick, firm golf course that simply would not be caught.
Lefty’s story has no happy ending, at least not on this day, as he trudged his way to a disheartening, birdie-less round of 4-over 75. On a Chamber of Commerce day when hole locations weren’t outrageous and most felt scoring should have been better than it was, Mickelson had a one-word description for his putting: Horrific.
He wasn’t embellishing, either.
Phil Mickelson, birdieless? Anywhere? You’d think Capistrano might endure such a fate before the newly-minted (as of Wednesday) 40-year-old thrill ride from SoCal. Shoot, even when he was fresh out of Arizona State and making his pro debut at the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble – he shot 81 in the second round to miss the cut – he at least managed to make a birdie.
“Yeah, I usually find a way to make some birdies,” he said, taking the early clubhouse lead in Understatement of the Year category. “I had my opportunities. I mean, I had a number of chances. There were a number of birdie-chances holes out there, and I had my opportunities.
“I just didn’t make the putt.”
He could say that again. Fittingly, even his last effort for birdie at No. 9 crept up to the hole, only to hang tantalizingly on the lip. Every time he showed enough spark with his long game to get something going, his shortstick would go on strike, killing the drive. He stuffed a shot to 10 feet at the treacherous, 502-yard par-4 second hole (his 11th) and missed left. He got a huge break on the next hole, the shortish third, where he flailed a drive left, next to the 17th tee, caught a good lie in the rough, pitched on and failed to convert a good birdie chance.
At the par-5 sixth, after short-siding himself with a poor lay-up, he flopped to 3 feet – and you know what happened then.
“It’s just frustrating,” he said. “I came in here ready. I hit a lot of good shots today. I gave myself a lot of birdie opportunities. And I putted terrible.”
A call to his putting wizard, two-time major champion Dave Stockton, was on Lefty’s to-do list as he departed the grounds. He said he’s rolling the ball OK, but there’s something in his stroke that’s a little askew. Many of his putts weren’t starting on line Thursday at Pebble, and when they did, the reads weren’t very good. That’s a double whammy for a guy looking to get out of the gates well. He hit enough decent shots to be somewhere around even par, and now, as he faces a Friday afternoon tee time in Round 2, when Pebble Beach’s Poa greens can get downright dry and crispy, Mickelson already has dug an early hole.
Thursday, he needed 32 putts. The good news? The best score in his morning wave was 70, so he didn’t shoot himself out of anything just yet.
“It’s 72 holes,” reminded three-time major winner Padraig Harrington, who shot 2-over 73 playing alongside Mickelson, “and you don’t want to blow yourself out of it on the first day.”
This year marks Mickelson’s 20th U.S. Open, and the man and the major have had an interesting courtship. The first eight Opens he played, fans barely knew he was there. But since 1999, when he was edged on the 72nd hole at Pinehurst No. 2 by the late Payne Stewart, Mickelson has been an incredibly consistent Open performer. He’s been a U.S. Open runner-up four other times to pass Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus for most runner-up finishes at the storied Open. He’s got enough silver medals to start his own Olympics.
Like it or not, he has an unshakable Open connection to Snead. For all the winning both men did, neither captured his national Open, a glaring omission on two incredible portfolios. In Mickelson’s case, there’s a qualifier: at least not yet. Pebble would seem to be a custom-made venue for him. It’s where the left-hander made his pro debut in 1992, and where he has had success in winning three AT&T titles through the years. It’s where the “other” guy who won by 15 shots last time continues to search for himself and his game.
So certainly Lefty was seeking a sturdier first step than the one he put forth.
Once he was chastised for never winning majors, yet Mickelson answered that with four in the past six years, finally breaking through at the Masters at age 35. Now a new question looms: Is there a jewel missing in the crown? Mickelson says flatly he believes that’s a pessimistic way of viewing his career.
“We could talk about Arnold (Palmer) not winning a PGA, (but) I’d rather talk about the four Masters he won, or the win he had at Cherry Hills (1960 U.S. Open) or what he did at Birkdale (1961 British Open),” Mickelson said earlier this week. “He’s done so many great things, I like to look at that.
“Sure, the pessimist is going to look at all the things he hasn’t done, or I haven’t done . . . but I don’t choose to look at my career – or anybody else’s – that way.”
One round down. And Lefty hopes his chances aren’t out to sea.