Lefty scrambles to opening 70 at Augusta

Phil Mickelson plays his second shot from the flowers on the 13th hole during the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia.

Phil Mickelson plays his second shot from the flowers on the 13th hole during the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – If Phil Mickelson finds himself anywhere near the mix this Sunday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club, he can tip his cap to a Houdini-like performance in the opening round. At the end of a gorgeous, postcard-worthy day in Georgia, with the bright sun setting behind the tall trees guarding the adjacent ninth fairway, it was nothing short of amazing that Mickelson stood on the 18th green with only seven feet standing between him and an opening round in the 60s.

It appeared as if he should have been putting for 77.

Mickelson would miss his putt for his 15th par of the afternoon, the first time all day he blinked despite spraying the ball across all corners of this former nursery off Washington Road. Short left on 6; way right and deep into the woods on 10; right greenside bunker at 11; way left into a sea of colorful azaleas off the tee on 13. At the par-4 14th hole, Mickelson once again found himself off the short grass, this time hanging in the left rough with a tall pine blocking his path to the green. Jim “Bones” Mackay, Lefty’s faithful caddie, took one look at the ball and decided he’d be pleased to get out of the predicament with a par.

His boss had other plans. He usually does. Mickelson asked Bones to hand him his 3-iron, the one that he’d considered benching in favor of a second driver (a plan he scrapped on the range prior to the round). He then hit a low bullet cut from 176 yards that bent around the pine and bounded up onto the green, finishing about 6 feet from the hole. He got to 2 under, then reached the par-5 15th in two shots to pick up another birdie.

“I wish I was standing behind him (at 14),” said Peter Uihlein, the U.S. Amateur champion, who birdied the last hole for 72. “That was an unbelievable shot.”

As for his thoughts on the overall scrambling exhibition he’d seen the three-time Masters champion stage to the delight of the crowds late Thursday?

Uihlein smiled. “That’s Phil,” he said.

Give the kid some credit. He’s absolutely right. That’s Phil.

In a field of 99 players, Mickelson would rank dead last in driving accuracy, hitting only four fairways all day. To be honest, that’s what made watching his opening, 2-under 70 so enjoyable.

Once that sun finally set, Mickelson still stood on the practice tee at Augusta, obviously trying to find something. Fortunately, in spite of spending more time in the woods than Daniel Boone, the Tour’s resident scrambler extraordinaire didn’t play his way out of the 75th Masters the way World No. 1 Martin Kaymer had (78), or the way three-time major champion Padraig Harrington did (77).

“I missed it in spots where I could get up-and-down,” he said. “That’s why I was disappointed on 18. I had an easy shot.”

Mickelson had hit a towering 3-wood off the tee that finished in the right rough not far from the corner where the hole opens up. He was pleased just to get a second shot up left of the green, nearly pin high, leaving himself an uphill chip to a back-right hole location. But his chip took a turn and finished 7 feet below the cup, and when the putt failed to fall, Mickelson’s bogey-free round disappeared with it. He’ll enter the second round trailing co-leaders Rory McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros by five.

“It’s OK, just OK,” is how Mickelson would assess the round on his way to the range. “I didn’t shoot myself out of it but I didn’t make up ground on the field the way I wanted to, so I’ve got to go do it tomorrow.”

Had he parred the last, Mickelson would have broken 70 in the first round for only the second time since 2002. He opened with 72 when he won his first green jacket in 2004, and 70 when he won a second jacket in 2006. Last year, on an opening day when the course was there for the taking, Mickelson shot 67 and was off and running to a third green blazer.

One longtime Masters observer opined that Phil’s Augusta National IQ – that is, the intimate way he knows every roll and subtle break – is worth about four shots a round. Sure, he’d left a few birdie opportunities on the table, but for the most part, Mickelson had little room to moan. Shooting 70 on a day when he looked like he was shooting skeet, Mickelson left the grounds at Augusta National knowing he’d gotten away with one.

Friday is another day, and in this era, nobody loves days at the Masters quite the way Phil Mickelson does.

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