BETHESDA, MD. Phil Mickelson recoiled like a scalded cat yesterday when someone mentioned all the fans who had come out to Congressional Country Club to see him play in the AT&T National.
"Oh, no, they are here to see Tiger," said the world's second-ranked player. "Let's make no mistake."
Phil was right, to a degree. The National is all about Tiger Woods. He's the host, CEO, poster boy, and headline attraction. But Mickelson's fan base is almost as big. I walked with Lefty's gallery this afternoon, and so many people kept yelling "Phil! Phil!" and "Go Phil!" that you would have thought he was in contention. Every time Mickelson's ball dropped in the cup or stopped within tap-in range, a couple of hundred spectators scampered toward the next tee, leaving playing partners Adam Scott and Brad Faxon to putt out in settling dust.
This, I remind you, was for a player who was four over par when he teed off this afternoon. A born showman, Mickelson got one back with an incredible fairway bunker shot on the first hole. With the ball below his feet and his stance aligned about 80 degrees left of where he was actually aiming, Mickelson launched a rocket-high hook that plummeted to earth 12 feet from the hole.
The end of his round, unfortunately, was more plummet than launch. Needing only to par in to make the cut with a stroke to spare, Mickelson went for the green on the par-5 16th hole, choosing as his instrument a new and apparently untrustworthy 2-iron.
"My hybrid would have been the perfect club, but I took it out of the bag this morning and put in a 2-iron that I planned to use at Carnoustie," he said afterwards i.e., after he had hooked his approach through the trees and up against a tree trunk and chain link fence on his way to a 7.
"That 2-iron isn't going to make the lineup for Carnoustie," Mickelson joked to reporters. "It's out."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, watching Mickelson flail on 16 while a pack of blazer-clad Secret Service agents watched the crowd, expressed sympathy. Said Rice, "I recognized that wicked hook from my own playing."
Forced to try for birdie to get to the weekend, Mickelson found both rough and water on No. 18 and made another double-bogey, dropping him to a seven-over-par finish.
"I knew I'd be a little rusty," he told us, dismissing questions about an injured left wrist that still gives him grief when he hits shots from the rough. "It was important that I get in some competitive rounds."
Mickelson will play his next competitive rounds next week at the Scottish Open if he's fit and then move on to Carnoustie for the season's third major, the British Open.
"Guys have won majors after missing the cut," he pointed out before leaving Congressional. "This year I missed a cut and ended up winning the AT&T (Pro-Am) the next week. You can find it overnight."
Mickelson's Capitol fans, similarly, have the night to figure out who they'll follow on Saturday. Tiger, maybe?