Putter leaves Mickelson with plenty of work to do
PINEHURST, N.C. – Phil Mickelson said he’d "take" his opening round of 70 at Pinehurst No. 2, that a player never can be upset with any day at a U.S. Open that ends with him hovering around level par.
That’s what his head told him to say, anyway.
He was about as convincing as a kid telling you he’d had a fantastic Christmas even though he didn’t get the top three toys on his list. You know better; in his heart, Mickelson knew better, too. He knew that with his early tee time, some nice cloud cover that kept the oppressive heat down most of the morning, gentle winds and 18 greens that were surprisingly receptive, he could have – make that should have – spent his dinner hour on Thursday in much better stead.
“It’s a good start,” he said after posting 70 in the 114th U.S. Open. “I didn’t hurt myself any. I had a chance to get 3, 4, 5 under today had I made some makeable opportunities. But I didn’t throw anything away on some of the short ones.”
When your bright spot is knowing you didn’t miss any tiddlers, well, there’s probably some work to be done. He’s never been afraid to put in the work. Mickelson, who through the years has shown us he can be up and down more than a ride at Six Flags, was steady if not spectacular in his opening round. He drove it well, often aggressively, hit some nice irons, and kept away from most of the harrowing trouble that lurks off the edges of Donald Ross’ most famous turtleback greens. He made up for three bogeys for three birdies and had only one 5 (his bogey at No. 8, his 17th hole) on his card.
PHOTOS: 2014 U.S. Open (Thursday)
See photos from Thursday's first round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
But for all the good things, something was amiss. He did not appear comfortable on the greens. If he’s going to complete that career Grand Slam he longs to achieve this week at a place with which he is so enamored, carving his bust into golf’s Mount Rushmore, Mickelson is going to have to solve the mystery that is his putter.
In other words, to paraphrase Shakespeare: To claw, or not to claw? That is the question.
“It’s not a long-term thing,” he said of his move to the claw putting grip, where he repositions his lower hand ever so lightly on the putter. He went to it in his final round at Memphis on Sunday. How long will it stick? That’s anyone’s guess.
“It might be months, might be days, hours . . . I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just one of those things …”
On Thursday, he needed the flatstick 31 times. Two of his birdies came after he stuffed approaches to 3 feet (at 10, his opening hole, and No. 14) and the other arrived when he whistled a low 4-iron approach to the front edge of the 528-yard, par-5 fifth hole (“Best shot of the day,” said caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay) and two-putted. (Truth be told, he needed to rally there after an abysmal first putt climbed the hill and drifted some 8 feet left of the hole.)
By now, as long as you follow any kind of golf and haven’t been stowed away this winter running the Iditarod Great Sled Race, you likely know that Mickelson has been a man snakebitten by his national championship. This is the 24th time he has played in one, and he never has landed that big trophy. Those nice medals the U.S. Golf Association hands out annually to its U.S. Open runner-up? Well, back home in California, Mickelson houses six of ’em.
That’s more silver than seen at a White House dinner.
So often in this championship, Mickelson has lived (and often died) with the driver. On Thursday, he had that club dialed in quite nicely. There were holes where fellow competitors Justin Rose (opening 72) and Matthew Fitzpatrick (the U.S. Amateur champion, who shot 71) used 3-woods off the tee, and Mickelson would air-mail them with driver, giving himself much less yardage into No. 2’s tricky, rolling greens. At most U.S. Opens, it would be a high-risk move, but Pinehurst is more generous than most in its landing areas.
In the end, though, he simply didn’t take advantage on enough of his chances. He hit 13 greens, and gave himself some looks, but could not get the putts to fall. He knows, as do we all, that segment of his game, which has hurt him throughout the season, must improve if he is to be the last man standing on Sunday.
“The one club that’s hurting me is the putter,” he said, “so I’ve got to get that turned around the next couple of days.”
In his six runner-up finishes at the Open, only once (last year at Merion) has Mickelson finished the week ranked outside the top 20 in putts per round.
He finished Thursday’s opening round at the par-3 ninth, where he two-putted for a routine par, then made his way to the practice green. Mackay had noticed his eyeline had been extending beyond the far edge of the ball, so that gave him one key to work on. You’ll remember that in 1999, the man who edged him at the finish with a clutch 15-footer on the 72nd hole was a man who’d been told by his wife to keep his head steady. Mickelson fulfilled his media commitments, then returned to the putting green.
In this tournament, any edge helps. Mickelson is here at a golf course that is absolutely perfect for him, but he has come in without his best stuff. It’s not a tournament where one wants to be searching, but he is, hoping to wake up one morning to find some magic has returned to his putting.
At a place that does not lack for storylines, that in itself should make for some great drama going forward. Then again, Phil the Thrill, clearly the man of the people at Pinehurst, seldom disappoints in that department.
This is a place where a player is going to have to hit conservative irons to 20 feet, and, says Mickelson, “I’ve got to make some of those. I’m going to keep working on it.”