All eyes were on “Lefty,” meaning Phil Mickelson, early. But it was Bubba Watson who showed left-handed excellence in moving to the top of the leaderboard Thursday at TPC Scottsdale (Ariz.) during the first round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Watson put on a trademark shotmaking clinic late in the day to match Y.E. Yang’s morning 64 as the two share the lead going into Friday by a shot over seven players who fired 65s.
Mickelson talked about his health after his even-par 71, saying he feels ready to put up a better number Friday.
Here are 5 Things to know from Scottsdale.
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1. BUBBA BUSTS OUT: With three pairs of back-to-back birdies during his opening round and a strong finish that showed flair, Bubba Watson rose into a share of the lead Thursday.
Watson turned up the volume at the par-3 16th, playing to a raucous crowd that seemed to know the shotmaker would live up to his reputation – and he did so by firing at the pin and holding the back of the green, then sinking a birdie putt to move to 6 under. He provided more fireworks at the par-4 17th, missing the green left and well past the pin, then nearly chipping in for eagle as he lipped out. Watson then gave himself another birdie look at the last, hitting a big drive and getting his approach to hang on the back edge – for the last of his 17 greens in regulation.
“This golf course, if your ballstriking is good, you can shoot some good numbers here,” Watson said. “Hit a lot of greens, didn’t make too many mistakes, didn’t miss too many fairways. Just played solid.”
The strong finish puts Watson in position to chase his first win since a memorable 2012 Masters championship. He has eight top-10 finishes since then, including the WGC-HSBC Champions in November.
And the 64 is just Watson’s second score lower than 68 since the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone in August, the other a 65 at the CIMB Classic in his first event of the wraparound-season in October.
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2. GEORGIA GOES WEST AGAIN: Years ago, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons competed in the NFC West and baseball’s Atlanta Braves played in the NL West. Both leagues since have fixed those geographic misnomers, but a trio of Georgia Bulldogs products turned heads in Phoenix on Thursday.
English charged to 8 under and held the lead before falling back to T-3 at 6 under, while Chris Kirk matched English’s 65 and Watson surpassed them both.
For English, the final three holes produced his only two bogeys of the day – and came on the heels of four straight birdies. Another hot stretch to start his round, four birdies in six holes, had produced the rest of his positives.
Kirk, meanwhile, avoided bogeys completely and rode two pair of back-to-back birdies to the 6-under mark.
In fact, Russell Henley was not much further back after a 3-under round of 68. Henley double-bogeyed the first hole, then birdied four of his next five to climb to 2 under. After wavering midround, he birdied the last.
Even Augusta State product Patrick Reed, winner of the recent Humana Challenge, eventually picked up on the Peach State momentum. He made eagle after driving the 17th and tap-in birdie at the 18th for a 4-under 67.
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3. YANG, YOU BETCHA: South Korea’s Y.E. Yang toured the back nine in 30, with six birdies and no bogeys, to move into a share of the lead.
The 42-year-old is looking for his best finish since a T-18 at last year’s Honda Classic – but building on the momentum, perhaps, of a T-28 at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
“I think you have to be aggressive,” Yang said, via a translator. “At the same time, you can’t be too aggressive. . . . You have to really balance it out, but you still have to be a little bit more aggressive than other tournaments.”
Like Watson, Yang hasn’t won since his only major title – for Yang, that’s the 2009 PGA Championship, when he outdueled Tiger Woods. He hasn’t finished in the top 100 in FedEx Cup points since ending the 2011 season 43rd.
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4. PHIL FEELS FINE: “Frustrating” was the word of the day for Phil Mickelson, when many surely thought it could well have become “hurting.”
Mickelson double-bogeyed early at No. 12 after starting on the back nine to slip to 2 over, but he answered with two immediate birdies. The Arizona State product then scattered three more birdies during his next eight holes.
From there, it went steeply wrong – with three bogeys at Nos. 5-9 that forced the reigning Open Championship victor to settle for an even-par 71, seven shots off the lead.
“I physically feel good. I feel like my game is sharp, even though I haven’t been able to practice too much,” Mickelson, the defending champion here and a three-time winner of the annual Phoenix stop, told reporters. He had withdrawn from last week’s Farmers Insurance Open, citing back pain after having made the cut. “The game was just a little rusty.
“I just made some careless swings – hitting it in the water on 12 was just pathetic. And then playing the last five holes in 3 over, when I have the round going, was just really bad. I’ll have to get it going tomorrow.”
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5. SHORT SHOTS: It’s crowded behind the co-leaders. English, Kirk, Greg Chalmers, Matt Jones, William McGirt, Pat Perez and Kevin Stadler are one shot back, at 65. . . . Last week’s winner, Scott Stallings, opened with a 1-under 70 during which he got to 3 under before double-bogeying No. 6 down the stretch. . . . 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover carded the day’s worst round, 79, that featured more double bogeys (2) than birdies (1). . . . Arizona State freshman Ki-Taek Lee, playing this week as an amateur after Monday qualifying, opened with a 2-over 73. . . . Play was suspended because of darkness at 5:59 p.m. MST, with the conclusion of the first round scheduled to restart at 8 a.m.; second-round tee times will not change.
– Associated Press contributed