PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Phil Mickelson missed the cut the first two times he ever played the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, and he also missed the cut in each of the last four years.
In between, he made 17 starts, won once (2007), had six other top-20 finishes, and banked $2,863,735. Oh, and 35 cents.
Famine, meet feast. That’s been the Mickelson/Players experience. On Thursday, it was more the latter, as he opened solidly with a 2-under 70, a par at the par-5 ninth (his final hole) the only thing keeping him from his first sub-70 score on the Stadium since the third round six years ago.
When Mickelson stepped to the 10th tee on Thursday morning to begin his 24th Players, it marked the first time that Mickelson had seen the golf course this week. He’d planned to play Tuesday, but was a little tired after a Monday outing at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. Wednesday he considered playing some holes, but with the searing heat hovering at 90, he thought better, choosing to conserve energy. So he hit balls on the back of the revamped practice area and went home to rest.
“I’ve played here 25 years, so it’s not like that one round was going to make a big difference,” he said with a shrug.
Per usual, Mickelson’s run around the Stadium featured a little bit of everything. There was an eagle (16) and five birdies to go with three bogeys and a dismal double at the par-3 third. Had playing zero holes in practice rendered any effect? He didn’t think so.
“I think this is a course where knowing it doesn’t really matter, because you don’t know what kind of shot you’re going to have,” he said. “… There’s so much randomness that you just have to execute. There’s no place to bail out. There’s no place to miss.”
Mickelson’s last four years at the Players have been a collective head-scratcher. He was over par in five of his eight rounds and wondered aloud a year ago after rounds of 70-73 how he’d ever won here.
At the new-look and shortened 12th (302 yards), he hit iron into the fairway and made par after a poor wedge to 30 feet. Once he made the turn, his double at the 177-yard third occured when he missed the green and left a shot in a back bunker.
Mickelson’s eagle came about from a little magical moment with a different twist that he is known to produce. He hit a good drive, leaving himself 238 yards into the par 5, which is protected by water along the right. Normally, he’d hit 6-iron. But because the ball was sitting down just a bit in an indention, he turned to longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and told him he’d be hitting the ball a groove low, and thus needed a 5-iron. He hit the shot to 8 feet and converted the eagle putt.
Mickelson has struggled to hit fairways, and once again his driving numbers are down (he ranks 187th in driving accuracy). In greens in regulation, he has gone from a ranking of 84th to 168th (63.61 percent). But Mickelson always has been able to overcome inconsistencies in his long game with some incredible scrambling and solid putting. This season, though, he ranks 191st in scrambling from 10 to 20 yards (57.14 percent); a year ago, he was fourth in that category (75.16). And he ranks 85th in putting from 10 feet and in.
Still, Mickelson has been working hard trying to land his first victory since the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, though this wouldn’t be the logical track for him to get it done. But hey, one day down, and Mickelson was in the house in red numbers. Two under. It was a solid first step in getting to the weekend.
“The last few years it’s beaten me up pretty good,” he said, “so it’s nice to get off to a halfway decent start.”