Back on Track

Mickelson wore a light bandage around his left wrist Wednesday.
Nick Wass/AP

He was going to skip the British Open. He was going to skip the rest of the summer. He was going to take the rest of the year off.

The so-called experts had Phil Mickelson and his injured left wrist all figured out. Then, without warning, he announced last week that he would be playing in the inaugural AT&T National at Congressional Country Club, starting Thursday. He practiced off-site Tuesday, but he seemed to find the form that won him the Players during the last two hours of Wednesday's pro-am.

"Now that the doc said that I won't be doing any more damage to the wrist, that I can go ahead and give it 100 percent, I wanted to get back out and play," he said after his round. Using a mixture of drivers and hybrids off the tees, Mickelson missed just one fairway in his last seven holes, on the par-4 12th, but his ball went only about three feet into the right rough. He hit his approach shot to four feet below the pin and birdied the hole, his last birdie in a round of 68 (34-34).

Although it's not quite 100 percent healthy, he reported no problems with the wrist.

"So I played last week," he continued. "I've played the last six, seven days probably, and have been able to play fairly, reasonably well, and not have to worry about being injured."

Mickelson wore a light bandage around his left wrist, which he injured while hitting balls out of the rough during an advance scouting trip to Oakmont in late May. The U.S. Open is the tournament he would most dearly love to win, but the last time we saw him in action, he was flailing around and whacking himself in the thigh with his cap. He then angrily accused the USGA of endangering the welfare of contestants with its over-the-top course setup.

But the player we saw Wednesday resembled not Oakmont Phil but Sawgrass Phil, specifically the Mickelson who had almost complete command over his golf ball on the back nine on Sunday. His tee shots found the short grass. His irons flew at pins. His few misses, like a slightly pulled mid-iron to the par-3 13th hole, missed not on the short side of the pin but on the correct side, on the green, leaving only a long birdie putt instead of an impossible up-and-down. He attributed his solid play in part to having spent time recently with new coach Butch Harmon.

"The front nine wasn't so great," he said. "The difference from Sawgrass is there's less curvature. I carved a lot more shots in the fairway at Sawgrass. I saw Butch on Saturday and spent a couple of days with him now over the last four or five weeks, and we're trying to get it straightened out so there is not as much curvature, and that was more apparent on the back nine today. But again, this will be a good week to test it because the fairways are tight."

Mickelson was at his wonky best after stiffing his approach shot to five feet on the par-4 14th hole. He missed his birdie putt on the high (right) side, then resolved a difference of opinion with one of his amateur partners on how much the putt broke. Mickelson had his caddie Jim (Bones) MacKay fish around in the bag for the Pelz Putting Trainer, a triangular shaped gizmo on which the ball is rolled between two marbles barely a ball's width apart. Once it was set up on the putt's proper line, Mickelson placed another aiming device, a red laser-light pointer, to demonstrate that the putt broke more like 18 inches.

"Everybody under-reads putts," he said helpfully.

He split the fairway with drivers on 15 and 16, and with a utility wood on 17. It was there that he reminisced with MacKay about the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. Mickelson was playing with Davis Love III and Colin Montgomerie, who was having a rough second round. When Mickelson's drive on the par-4 17th was barely a foot off his clubface, the threesome and their caddies were startled by a nearby fan's thunderous, "You da man!!!" Montgomerie, who contended he'd been heckled earlier in the round, lost it, wheeling around to the crowd and bellowing, "Who said that?"

"And this guy stepped up who looked like Lawrence Taylor's twin brother," MacKay said, laughing.

"I said it," the man declared.

As the story goes, Montgomerie replied, "Well, you have a nice day."

If Mickelson's form on Wednesday is any indication, and if his left wrist is healing the way he seems to think it is, he is still the man a decade later. If he's healthy and continues to improve under the tutelage of Harmon, nothing is out of the question, not a win this week, not a win at the British Open at Carnoustie, and especially not a win at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills next month. Asked what it would mean to him to win a tournament that owes its very existence to Tiger Woods, the official host this week, Mickelson answered as if the thought had crossed his mind.

"If he passed out the trophy," the world No. 2 said, "it would be pretty cool."

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