Hoylake's 'Big Three' struggle mightily

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els after their first round Thursday in the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England.

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Open Championship

Royal Liverpool GC, Hoylake, England

7/17/2014 - 7/20/2014

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1 Rory McIlroy $1,665,788 600 -17
2 Rickie Fowler $785,910 270 -15
2 Sergio Garcia $785,910 270 -15
4 Jim Furyk $478,380 150 -13
5 Marc Leishman $359,639 115 -12
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HOYLAKE, England – Apologies to Charles Dickens, but Thursday at Royal Liverpool in the 143rd Open Championship, it was the best of times, it the worst of times. This was the day's mix: Uncharacteristically untroublesome scoring conditions on a docile morning along the Wirral coastline, and then adventure and misfortune in the afternoon on the suddenly windswept English links.

Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Bubba Watson took part in the angrier side of a long day at Hoylake, teeing off in mid-afternoon and experiencing more than their share of nightmare and heartache. In fact, envision their round together as a stage play, with each man taking on a leading role in a moment of “tragic” consequence.

Playing two groups behind, Adam Scott would return a fine 4-under 68 in the afternoon. Honestly, Mickelson, Els and Watson appeared relieved just to return at all.

Els didn’t wait long for his unraveling first act – it came just after the curtain to his round was raised. He whistled his opening tee shot down the left side of the par-4 first, and his ball didn't touch the turf until it first had collided mightily with the jawbone of an elderly spectator, bloodying the man and instantly delivering an unsettling vibe to Els’ Hoylake experience.

The man took the hit better than most would receive a Mike Tyson punch back in the day, even playfully telling the two-time Open champion after he’d checked up on him, “Ernie, if you win, will you give us a song?” (Els expressed concern about the gentleman afterward, and was informed the man took a few stitches but is expected to be fine.)

"There’s blood all over," Els said of the scene. "And I was quite rattled. It wasn’t nice."

Three putts from 1 foot – no typo there – and Els was walking to the second tee dazed, having just opened with a triple-bogey 7. How does a Hall of Famer with victories all over the world miss twice from inside a foot? Well, it wasn’t easy. He blanked out and waved the first 1-footer right of the cup, then came up short on a red-faced backhander, and his episode of poor stickhandling on the first green cost him dearly. Surprised that Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t his walking official.

“It was a nightmare,” Els said. He shot 7-over 42 on the front nine, when conditions were calmer, and would fight on the back nine just to crack 80. Sorry sir, there will be no song from the Big Easy this week.

Mickelson-Els-Watson turned out to be the gang that couldn’t putt straight, and on a day when Hoylake was being blistered in red numbers, these three were the Men in Black. Els finished with 79 blows, with Mickelson shooting 74 and Watson settling for 76. Nightmare? Well, that seems as good a description as any.

After his two opening hiccups with the putter, Els missed another 1-footer a couple holes later, at No. 4. And Watson missed one of his own from well inside the leather, powerlipping a putt for 6 on the par-4 11th that would send the Masters champion plummeting to 2 over for his round.

Moments earlier, everything had appeared so promising, with Watson plodding along quite nicely, sitting at 1 under par and facing only 133 yards to the flagstick at 11. But things can change quickly, and they did for him when he plugged his approach against the steep wall of a bunker and had little option but to go backwards on his third shot. Watson later said he was distracted on 11 by a good deal of commotion going on inside the ropes (cameramen, print media, radio and TV announcers) and needed to focus better.

“And I just let it go on that one hole and it cost me dearly,” he said. “If I focused a little bit there, I could hit a better shot and hopefully make a bogey instead of a triple. It's one of those things. It's all on me. It's just my fault.”

Down Meols Drive, at the William Hill bookmakers, there are many prop wagers available to Open patrons this week, but you’d have broken the bank in betting that a group that boasts 11 major championships between them missed not one, not two, not three … but FOUR 1-foot putts.

The steadiest man in that group on this day was Mickelson, the five-time major winner and now, ahem, defending Open champion. (Hey, and they said it would never happen, right?) Last we watched Mickelson in the Open, he was producing magic at Muirfield last July, closing in 66 to win after 19 empty trips across the pond spent chasing the Claret Jug.

His putting would hold him back, but Mickelson was quite encouraged by his ballstriking (his best effort since last year’s Open, he would say). He said it's as if he's been a fraction off all year, but Thursday he located the missing fraction. Nonetheless, despite not converting with the putter, he still was in position to finish the day at level par as he took dead aim at the green with his second at the attackable par-5 18th hole. But his second shot would bound right, passing the in-course out-of-bounds stakes, startling news that Mickelson would not receive until he’d walked all the way up near the green complex. He then had to go back and reload some 270 yards away, and only a Houdini-like up-and-down from the tall, wispy rough left of the fairway allowed him to escape with bogey.

“I saw it bounce,” Mickelson said of his first approach at 18, “(and) it looked like it was fine. Nobody pointed it was out. It would be nice to hit the other ball without having an 8-minute delay or what have you, but it's not their fault I hit it out of bounds.”

And what are Lefty’s general thoughts regarding a golf course that is lined with internal out-of-bounds stakes?

“Obviously I think it sucks,” he said.

There you have it. As did this entire day for these three, frankly. Oh, and that poor old man on No. 1, as well.

“I think I put a jinx on us,” Els said. “… I think I pulled them down a little bit, and we can play better tomorrow.”

After a long, trying day at Royal Liverpool, that would seem to be the only direction these three could go.

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