PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – You wouldn’t guess it by the body type, but Phil Mickelson is quite the sprinter.
At least when he needs to be.
And after opening the 110th U.S. Open with a sloppy 75 that left him no closer to the lead than Salinas is to the Monterey Peninsula, Mickelson most definitely was in need of an explosion out of the blocks.
So, how does four birdies in six holes sound?
Or five in eight?
Not quite Usain Bolt quality? Hey, you’re being a bit greedy there, but so be it. That early birdie barrage certainly did the trick in Friday’s second round at Pebble Beach and oh, how it followed his game plan.
“I just had to get off to a good start,” Mickelson said. “I had to capitalize on the early holes.”
OK, so what followed that eight-hole blitz was 10 holes of par golf – a bogey at nine, a birdie at 11 – but put the dramatics of those early holes aside and remind yourself what wins U.S. Opens. A lot of pars, so in many ways, the manner Mickelson closed out his sparkling 5-under 66 will go a long way in determining whether he can win a coveted title that has painfully eluded him in 17 tries as a pro.
Going off in the afternoon wave when the air was frostier and the greens bumpier (remember, a day earlier Tiger Woods played at this time, shot 74 and for all intents and purposes said it was fruitless), Mickelson seemed to relish the challenge.
What jump-started it was a birdie at the brutally tough 502-yard, par-4 second. But it was just a 3-foot putt? You don’t know these poa greens.
“It was good to see a birdie putt go in,” Mickelson said, referring to Thursday’s birdieless round. “It gave me some confidence.”
He followed with birdies at the short and tricky par-4 third and the uphill par-4 fourth. When he added birdies at the par-5 sixth and par-4 eighth, a large dose of electricity was pumped into the seaside party and even the folks walking the beach below the cliffs took note. “Go Phil” they wrote in the sand.
And oh, how he went. Having sat behind 65 other golfers to start the day, Mickelson roared past most of them until only Graeme McDowell (3-under 139) sat in front of him.
Tied at 1-under 141 with Dustin Johnson, Ernie Els, and Ryo Ishikawa, Mickelson is in familiar territory.
Threatening to win a U.S. Open.
Indeed, the lefthander has twice led a U.S. Open at the 36-hole mark and by now it’s well documented that he is a five-time runner-up. That’s the sort of history that could scar a lot of competitors, but in Mickelson we are watching perhaps the most resilient golfer of our generation.
On a day when the field average was creeping toward 74.6 as the sun fell into the Pacific, Mickelson was eight shots better. And to put it into another context, the next-best score in the afternoon was Camilo Villegas’ 69.
All this from a guy who the day before struggled mightily just to finish 4 over? Even Mickelson smiled at the fickle nature of golf, but he put a stop to all those storylines about a cram session the night before with his putting guru, Dave Stockton.
“I knew I had been putting well,” Mickelson said. “It was just some minor tweaks.”
What made the round impressive wasn’t so much the six birdies in 11 holes, but the string of pars coming home. “I wasn’t over-stressed” is the phrase Mickelson used and he was correct. A deft up-and-down at the par-3 12th was followed by precision play at the par-4 13th, par-5 14th, par-4 15th, and par-4 16th and while each presented a legitimate birdie chance that slipped away, Mickelson wasn’t feeling greedy.
He knew the truth. “I had made a lot of putts go in,” he said.
No surprise, but as the momentum built and Mickelson’s name dominated the leaderboard, the crowd sensed that something special was taking place. And given the way Pebble Beach had been scorched the day before by Woods’ stinging criticism (”the greens are awful”), the iconic place couldn’t have had a better ambassador turning on the proud spotlight.
“I think this is the greatest place,” Mickelson said. “To be able to play one of the most beautiful golf courses and have it be in a U.S. Open? This is so much fun.”
How that must have been music to the ears of Pebble Beach officials, and to those belonging to USGA types, too. You’d have thought by the moans and groans from Thursday’s action that putts could not be made and patches of velcro were growing on these greens.
It’s poa and it’s Pebble and it’s a combination that has served up some of the greatest U.S. Opens we have ever seen. That another one seems to be in the making is a delicious thought, made even more so by the re-emergence of the people’s choice.
He was everything to all people on a five-hour stroll at a place where three times he has been the king of the February party hosted by AT&T. Players moan and groan about that one, too, but not Mickelson. No, sir. He is Pebble’s trump card to Woods, which is why he was served up a question about those putting greens.
“Well, they’re not Augusta smooth . . . ” he said, but then he smiled and showed he is a future diplomat.
“I want to keep playing. I can’t wait to get out tomorrow. It’s great.”