NORTON, Mass. – How good a day did Phil Mickelson have at TPC Boston? Here’s a hint: Had he been involved in match-play affairs against his playing competitors, he would have beaten both Tiger Woods and Adam Scott by 5-and-4 margins.
Match play not your forte? You prefer medal? Using that method, Mickelson outscored Woods by five and Scott by a whopping 10.
Nos. 1-2-3 in the world?
Sorry, on this day, Woods and Scott were a distance second to the inimitable lefthander, he of 11 one-putt greens, eight birdies, and a breathtaking eagle. So impressive and so dialed-in was Mickelson in shooting 8-under 63 in Round 1 of the Deutsche Bank Championship that he even made something out of arguably one of the worst shots he has produced.
Miles right at his 18th hole, the 472-yard, par-4 ninth, Mickelson was in a ditch and barely advanced his next shot. But from 209 yards and still in gnarly rough, Mickelson was able to find the green, two-putt for his second bogey of the day, and escape with a smile on his face.
OK, so he wears a smile nearly all the time, but on this occasion it was accompanied by a sense of relief. Mickelson could have made anything at the ninth, a double- or triple-bogey, so clearly dropping just one didn’t unravel all that he had accomplished for the first 17 holes.
Which was so much that Woods and Scott – Nos. 1 and 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings and the FedEx Cup standings – were rendered bit players.
Call it a continuation of last week’s final round at The Barclays – a sizzling 6-under 65 that nearly was good enough to erase a seven-stroke deficit and win – but Mickelson broke out of the gate like he were determined to bring to mind Secretariat and the 1973 Belmont.
“My game clicked again last week. I can just feel it,” Mickelson said. “The game feels sharp.”
How sharp? Glad you asked, and for an indication, the lefthander’s opening nine holes, played over TPC Boston’s back nine, went like this: Mickelson hit six of seven fairways, eight of nine greens, and rolled in seven birdies – 18 feet at the 10th, 27 feet at the 11th, 17 feet at the 14th, 14 feet at the 15th, 5 feet at the 16th, 11 feet at the 17th, and then two putts from 43 feet at the par-5 18th.
Shake it up, toss it around, and slice it up any way you choose, but it added up to a tidy 28, matching the low nine on the PGA Tour this season (Charley Hoffman had 28 at the Travelers). So impressive was the opening nine holes that it surpassed the 29 Mickelson posted at TPC Scottsdale seven months ago, a day when he shot 60.
Half done with his work day, Mickelson knew “it was going to be a good round, as long as I didn’t mess it up.”
He didn’t – unless, of course, you think his mission was to shoot 59. For a while, Mickelson considered the magical number, but a bogey at the first, even when offset by an eagle at the par-5 second, left Mickelson 8-under with seven to play. He needed four more birdies but when he failed to birdie either the par-3 third or short, par-4 fourth “I stopped thinking 59.”
Not that people stopped watching. The show belonged to Mickelson, a remarkable achievement given that behemoths stood next to him.
The only thing is, Woods seemed more pained by his round of 68 – “I didn’t hit it as well as I’d like to” – than overwhelmed by Mickelson’s. “You can shoot a good number,” Woods said. “Not a lot going on with me. I didn’t give myself a lot of looks. But Phil was getting everything.”
True enough, Mickelson rolled in 45 feet worth of birdie putts on the first two holes and 99 for the first nine holes alone. But don’t think this was something out of the wilderness, a guy catching fire at an opportune time; when Mickelson’s senses good fortune on the horizon, he usually seizes upon the opportunity.
“Mentally, I have a lot of energy,” Mickelson said, “and I’m able to focus clearly. That’s usually when you play well.”
That’s why Mickelson’s mood when he arrived on site Thursday was upbeat. Having gone back home to be there when daughter Amanda started her high school year, the lefthander played an afternoon pro-am Thursday and people who ran into said he talked openly about the positive state of his game.
It was not unlike that Saturday night before the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 2012 when Mickelson told dinner guests that he liked chances in Round 4, one that would have him paired with Woods in the penultimate group.
Mickelson posted a stunning 64 to Woods’ 75 and won going away.
Asked if being paired with Woods brings out the best in him, Mickelson smiled. “After today, it’s hard to think any differently.”
It was the 33rd time the two greatest American-born players of their generation have been paired together and while Woods owns a slight edge, 15-14, in putting up a lower number on those occasions (four times they’ve tied), Lefty has had the edge in six of the last meetings.
If the largeness of a Woods-Mickelson show made Scott feel slighted, even in the aftermath of his win at The Barclays last week, the Aussie didn’t help his cause by making one miserly birdie and posting one of seven over-par scores in the morning wave. Hard to overlook a Masters champ with arguably the game’s best swing, but Scott was virtually invisible over the final nine holes, with all eyes on Mickelson.
The sloppy bogey at the first (he missed the green with a wedge from the fairway) was quickly forgotten when Mickelson hit a laser from 212 yards at the 542-yard second. He darn near jarred it for an albatros, but settling for a tap-in eagle was OK with him. A stretch of five pars in a row kept him in front, but his birdie at the par-3 eighth was offset by the bogey at the ninth.
“I just mentally went blank for a swing,” Mickelson said of his wild drive right at his final hole. “It happens. It only cost me one shot.”
With the morning wave in, Mickelson led Kevin Stadler (64) by one, but the course was being scorched to a field average of 68.996, so who knows how long folks in the afternoon could go? Truth is, Mickelson is right where he wants to be – in the thick of things for another victory, his fourth of the year; for a FedEx Cup championship, which would be his first; and for Player of the Year honors, also something he’s never earned.
“I just want to play well these next three (tournaments),” Mickelson said, conceding that he would relish a POY honor.
“That would mean a lot to me.”
The next three days will go a long way toward deciding that. But for now, Mickelson can take comfort in knowing he was the player of the morning.