Notes: McIlroy, Lefty find plenty to discuss

Rory McIlroy (left) and Phil Mickelson

Rory McIlroy (left) and Phil Mickelson

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AKRON, Ohio – Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, a future superstar and a current one, were paired in Thursday’s opening round of the Bridgestone Invitational.

It was a big hit with the fans, and especially with the two players.

After McIlroy completed a 2-under 68 and Mickelson finished off a 66, they were already looking forward to playing together again on Friday.

“Every time I’ve played with Phil, I’ve enjoyed it,” said McIlroy, the 21-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland. “I think we enjoy each other’s company. We chatted pretty much the whole way around. It’s nice, especially when you’re out in a two-ball. It’s nice to have a playing partner that you can talk to and have a little bit of a chat.”

Mickelson felt the same way.

“I do enjoy playing with Rory,” he said. “He’s fun, he’s interesting, he’s a smart guy. So we always have intelligent conversation. He’s really got a great demeanor – always upbeat, great to be around, not to mention his talent. I do enjoy playing with him and we get to play together again tomorrow.”

The two discussed building projects, of all things. Both are in the process of constructing new practice facilities at their homes and were comparing notes throughout the round on different designs, grasses and greens.

Mickelson was 2 over through his first six holes and 1 over though 10. But he birdied five of the last eight holes to pull into a tie for second, two shots back of Bubba Watson.

The highlight came at the par-4 6th. He hit a 300-yard drive, but overcooked his 170-yard second shot, leaving himself with a difficult, short-sided flop shot from 50 feet.

“I needed to get that up and down to maintain some momentum,” Mickelson said later. “I was only 1-under par and I was trying to keep it just a couple under. And when that lob shot went in the hole, it gave me a nice boost.”

McIlroy raved about the shot.

“That was one of the best shots I’ve seen this year,” he said.

Mickelson grinned when he was told that.

“Well, it was a good one,” said the dramatic winner of the Masters. “There were some at Augusta that I kind of remember a little more fondly than Thursday here at Akron. But it was a good one.”

• • •

TWO THUMBS UP: A change in tee times at the Bridgestone Invitational made a big difference. Instead of playing off both tees in groups of threes, the PGA Tour decided to send players off in twosomes.

“We just figured we would try it and thought it would work,” said Slugger White, vice president of rules and competition.

There were 10 groups of two that started on each nine, morning and afternoon, and among other things it kept more players on the course at the same time for the gallery.

“It fills the golf course which helps the spectators, so they’re not sitting around for an hour waiting on someone to come through,” White said. “And the pace has been good.”

Players much prefer twosomes over threesomes for the pace of the round.

White said the Tour might try this at the World Golf Championship at Doral, where the field size (81 at Firestone) is about the same. The only holdup for Florida in March, however, is that it gets dark around 6:30 p.m. In Ohio in August, they can play until almost 9 p.m.

“If you like playing in 3 hours, 40 minutes, it was perfect,” Adam Scott said after his 66. “The field is small enough that we should be able to do it.”

• • •

BUBBA VS.: Bubba Watson took the last two weeks off, playing only five holes of golf. But he kept plenty busy.

He shot an episode of “Inside The PGA Tour,” giving viewers a look into his life. He also spent time playing with family and friends on a lake in North Carolina.

Oh, and he also filmed a segment of “Shaq Vs.” in which the NBA’s gentle giant tests himself against other athletes.

“He’s not very good at golf (but) Shaq actually impressed me,” said Watson, the first-round leader of the Bridgestone Invitational after shooting a 6-under 64. “Shaq is an athlete; he just happens to be 7-foot-2, 300 pounds of pure muscle. His feel on the greens wasn’t very good, but for the first five holes he’s ever played, he impressed me.”

Watson wouldn’t disclose the outcome of the alternate-shot match pitting Shaq and Anthony Kim against Watson and Charles Barkley.

He did reveal something that wasn’t really a secret.

“Charles Barkley is not very good at golf,” he cracked to loud laughter.

• • •

TRYING TO BE INVISIBLE: Firestone Country Club head pro David Champagne was a marker for Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.

“My goal was to stay out of his way,” Champagne said.

Stenson struggled to a 79; Champagne was three strokes better.

• • •

SHORTER DRIVER: Mickelson was playing with a reconfigured Callaway driver. At the urging of his coach, Butch Harmon, Mickelson had the shaft of his driver shortened to 44 inches and made heavier by 20 grams.

“I seemed to hit the ball a little bit straighter with it,” said Mickelson, who hit eight of 14 fairways and averaged 310 yards on his measured drives.

• • •

DIVOTS: Watson’s 64 matched the lowest round ever by a player making his debut at the Bridgestone (Ben Curtis in 2003). ... No player has ever won the Bridgestone in his first appearance. ... International players have won the year’s first two World Golf Championship events (Ian Poulter in the Match Play and Ernie Els in the CA Championship). ... Woods’ 74 was his highest score ever in a competitive round at Firestone Country Club. The previous worst was a 72.

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