Phil Mickelson's best finish at the Players was a tie for third in 2004.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., May 10 — The player wore an alpha-red shirt that fit well over his svelte torso. He works out hard and is unafraid to tell you so, and he hit his drives low and hard in the first round of the Players Championship on Thursday morning. It barely mattered that the wind was gusting up to 39 mph. On the rare occasions when he missed those drives, they ended up in the right rough, or a right fairway bunker, never to the left.

He burned with such intensity that when he barely missed a long birdie putt on the 1st, his 10th hole of the round, he loosed a loud, staccato "God!"

The player calmly birdied the first two holes of his round, 10 and 11, avoided drama on 17 and looked totally in control of his game. His chief rival, meanwhile, flailed around and shot a birdie-free, three-over-par 75, and then calmly, patiently indulged the press and chatted about his horrid round.

But stop the presses: On this day, at least, the intense low-scorer was Mickelson. The hapless chief rival was Tiger Woods.

(Mickelson tees off today at 1:44, Sabbatini at 1:33, and Woods at 12:51. Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen are on the course now. Click here for updated scores and all tee times.)

"I enjoy this test," Woods said cheerfully, although it was unclear from whence that cheer came.

Mickelson was more action than talk. Awestruck, anxious marshals went out of their way to make sure he was not perturbed by any undue crowd noise. They yelled at the gallery, badgered the media.

Mickelson is being taught by Butch Harmon, swing coach to the stars, which might explain why his swing looks so technically sound, shorter and less handsy. But don't ask him about it. He gets very quiet and annoyed when he's asked about it. Remember the good old days? Remember when it was Woods who got annoyed when he was asked about Harmon?

Yep, it was unmistakable. For one day only, Mickelson was Woods, Woods was Mickelson, and the earth was off its axis.

The conditions figured to favor Phil, and they did. Sawgrass has received plenty of rain the last 48 hours, which allowed the notorious pin-hunter to attack with impunity. What's more, Mickelson found himself in a good threesome. Unlike the first two rounds of the EDS Byron Nelson two weeks ago, when he played with his polar opposite, the cantankerous Vijay Singh, Mickelson drew the all-around nice guys Bart Bryant and Stewart Cink. Neither one would be expected to hog the spotlight, and neither did.

The lefthander was in control throughout. His lone bogey came on the newly lengthened, 481-yard, par-4 14th hole, and he bounced back to two-under-par with a birdie on the par-5 16th. His tee shot on 17 barely made it over the water, and he throttled back on his driver to make sure he got his ball in the fairway on the nasty, 462-yard 18th hole, with water left (and a medium sized alligator by the green).

His driving has always invited scrutiny, and Mickelson's long game looked noticeably different Thursday. The first two holes, his 10th and 11th of the day, spoke volumes. Although Mickelson's killing miss has always been left, he hit low heaters on both holes that hooked just a fraction too far right. It's a miss he can play. He knocked his second shot on the green from a fairway bunker on 1, and he easily reached the green in two with a mid-iron out of the light rough on the downwind, 532-yard, par-5 2nd.

"I played with him last week (at the Wachovia Championship), too," Cink said after shooting two-over 74, "and he was hitting what I think would be fair to call a banana ball off the tee. Butch Harmon told me this morning, 'Yeah, you won't be seeing that banana anymore. We're done with that.'"

And so they were. With his driver tamed and the pecking order clearly established, Phil was the red-clad alpha making the red numbers. The statistics said he hit just five of 14 fairways, but anyone watching him play could tell you he wasn't missing by much, and Harmon was right: the banana was gone.

"I felt I drove it really well," Mickelson said. "I had four or five drives that were just in the first cut of rough."

Tiger dressed in blue and made blue numbers. He hit six of 14 fairways, one more than Mickelson, but only nine greens, three fewer than Phil. While Mickelson made 108 feet, 11 inches worth of putts Thursday, Woods made only 49 feet, 9 inches worth. Mickelson drained a 50-foot birdie bomb on the difficult, 237-yard, par-3 8th hole. Woods's longest make measured 9 feet, 11 inches, a par save on 18.

Rory Sabbatini, continuing a hot streak that saw him crack the final group with Woods at the Wachovia, played just ahead of Mickelson and also shot five-under 67. Chris DiMarco, who has struggled with a shoulder injury that will most likely require surgery in the off-season, came in at 68.

Speaking to reporters after his round, Mickelson was asked about the radically refurbished course, and he noted the newly shaved areas around some of the greens.

"I like it a lot more now because it incorporates short game as a much more important part of the scoring," he said. "With the shaved areas around the greens you have a variety of shots now that you can play."

More short game; no more banana ball. It was hard to imagine a better scenario for Mickelson. Maybe it was the afterglow of his 67, but he even seemed to warm to the subject of his new coach after his round.

"I have been entertained quite a bit with some great (Harmon) stories," Mickelson said. "He's a great storyteller. That's probably the biggest thing. There's always a point to the stories, you know, whether they're about his dad or other players, they always have a point. I find that very interesting. It's a fun way to learn."

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