Mickelson worth price of admission at U.S. Open
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Lady Gaga has nothing on Phil Mickelson. He, too, knows how to entertain his little monsters.
Surely it was more showmanship and adventure than prudence mid-Thursday afternoon that made him return the newly added 2-iron to his bag and unsheath his driver while standing 25 yards in the rough amid the left trees on the lengthy, 579-yard 16th hole.
Former Tour player Dennis Paulson, looking on and calling the action on radio, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “You need to get on your couch and talk to your psychiatrist about WHY you’d want to hit that shot,” he quipped.
Or, if you’re Phil Mickelson, you just dig in and hit it. Some may ask “Why?” when Phil asks “Why not?” He already stood 2 over par only six holes through the 111th U.S. Open. Complicating matters, a tall maple tree prohibited him from taking a full swing; Mickelson, ever the dreamer, envisioned a hard, low cut to get himself back into play. When a marshall moved the curious left-side gallery back 10 yards, Mickelson had other, more ambitious ideas. He usually does.
“It’s going to be low and hard … and you need to move ’em back 30 more feet,” barked Mickelson, calling his shot much like Minnesota Fats used to call a 9-ball off the bank. The crowd "oohed." Grown men high-fived like little boys. Ladies and gentlemen of Congressional, welcome to golf’s greatest show on turf.
The actual shot came off as if struck by a 36-handicapper, never rising higher than 4 feet off the ground, squirting hard across the fairway, never cutting very much before diving and dying in the right-side rough. It wasn’t a great play. Had a right-hander struck it, terming it a “shank” might constitute a high compliment. Lefty still had all of 170 yards left to a green that others were flipping half-wedges into. All of that mattered not at all. The crowd roared its thunderous approval, and Jim “Bones” Mackay slipped the headcover back on Lefty’s excalibur.
Mickelson would miss the green short left with his third, then nearly holed his long bunker shot, tapping in for par. John Madden couldn’t have drawn it up on a telestrator. Five on the card.
Ho-hum for Phil, and a collective “CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT PAR?” from the mortals.
Phil saw more acres of Congressional on Thursday than the club even realized it owned. But that’s OK; the masses were highly entertained. Sure, Rory McIlroy shot a near-flawless, 6-under 65 in the same group – the low round of the day by three shots – but it absolutely paled to Phil’s round on the Excite-o-meter.
In a Tigerless summer, we all could use an extra shot of Phil the Thrill. This is a city that knows good theater, and Mickelson is a true man of the people. On an overcast day that returned our nation’s championship to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1997, fans lined the gallery ropes five-deep outside the graduated rough, and as Mickelson sprayed his way through his first round, he got to meet many up close.
In the end, he’d sign for a 3-over 74 which was, well, in a word, miraculous. Sensational. He hit five fairways, missed eight others to the left, missed one right and failed to hit 10 of 18 greens in regulation. The last guy who visited Congressional and hit it as violently wide as Mickelson? Probably President Taft.
“To hit it as bad as I did and (only) be 3 over, I’ll take it,” he said, officially entering his quote into the Understatement of the Year Emmys.
And so it went on Day 1 of a championship that Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up, covets like no other. You knew it would be an E-ticket ride when Lefty’s very first swing of the day, at the 203-yard 10th, came up short, tumbled down the steep bank and vanished in water. Double bogey, and with it arrived an introductory philosophical question: Do all you Phil the Thrill fans here at Congressional have your seatbelts fastened? If not, better buckle up.
He hit 2-iron so far left at 14 he nearly needed a St. Bernard to find it. Bogey. He gunned a 4-footer for birdie so hard past the left edge at 15 he faced a longer par putt coming back. And on it went.
There was a birdie putt that dangled tantalizingly over the lip at No. 17; a near-chip-in at 18; the bomb he belted deep down the fairway at the first, only 60 yards short of the green on the 405-yard hole; a crazy-good up-and-down for par at No. 5; a missed green with a lob wedge in his hands at 6; a vintage Mickelson flop shot to the heavens to save par at 7; a tee shot so wild at the shortish, 354-yard eighth that it landed in a greenside bunker – back on hole No. 5. And so it went, right to the end, when he finally hit a fairway at the par-5 ninth only to lay up with his second into the rough. Where else? Fitting end.
Mickelson plays early on Friday (7:55 a.m.), and Butch Harmon had better have some magical elixir in his medicine kit.
Mickelson usually plays the week before a major, but he skipped the St. Jude in Memphis because of Bermuda greens and expected heat. He hasn’t been that far off lately, but on Thursday, his game looked a zillion miles away. Phil didn’t say very much after the round, declining to meet with the media, but that was fine. Really, what was there to say?
Anyway, his fans will do the talking for him. They may have applauded McIlroy for a brilliant 65, but it would be Phil the Thrill and his 74 adventurous blows that would dominate talk around the dinner table.