DORAL, Fla., It was Thursday morning at the Blue Monster and Jim Mackay was punching in for work. On his shoulder was a red and black golf bag. On the menu, a tee time with Tiger Woods.
Mackay lumbered toward Doral's nearly empty practice green, dropped the bag and began his workday. He grabbed a few irons from the bag. He buffed them with a towel, wiping down the grips and clubheads. He leaned hard against the bag.
At 8:48 a.m., more than three hours before his scheduled tee time with Woods and Graeme McDowell, Mickelson emerged from the Doral clubhouse, and the energy on the property began to change. In the old days, Doral was always the unofficial start of the golf season, and on Thursday it was happening again.
Mickelson and Mackay didn't fist bump or high five, but greeted each other with the solemn nod of business partners entering an important negotiation. Mickelson grabbed his putter and a fistful of balls.
"I'll take Phil for $100," someone in the crowd shouted. The folks were in a betting mood.
If the PGA Tour was waiting for the early signature event of the 2011 season, it could be at Doral, where 63 players kicked off the annual march toward the Masters in front of a large, energetic gallery. If the West Coast swing was highlighted by the star turns of Bubba Watson and Jhonattan Vegas and the hilarity of Bill Murray at Pebble Beach, Doral is where the golf gets serious. Mickelson spent Tuesday at Augusta National Golf Club, where he played a practice round before arriving at Doral for his much-anticipated pairing with Woods and McDowell, the 2010 United States Open Champion.
After a morning storm Thursday delayed play for nearly three hours and brought down 17 palm trees and two television towersone of the tower cameras ended up in a lakemost of the players failed to finish their opening rounds. Charley Hoffman held the clubhouse lead after a five-under-par 67 while Hunter Mahan was seven under through 11 holes. But even the microburst that brought 55 mph winds and downed a scoreboard couldn't dampen the excitement of seeing Woods and Mickelson share a tee box, especially here.
Six years ago, the duo engaged in the most famous duel in Doral history, matching swings in a final-round tussle that felt more like a boxing match. Woods edged Mickelson by a shot, the catalyst for a huge year that included major wins at the Masters and the British Open at St. Andrews. Woods and Mickelson ruled the golf world then.
On Thursday at Doral, the crowd pressed against the gallery ropes for a better look at the game's biggest rivalry, but the golf was mostly wanting. Woods, in what has become a familiar pattern, couldn't get the putts to drop and was one under par with three holes to play. Mickelson was marginally better, standing at two under par with three left. McDowell, the highest ranked player in the group, at No. 4 in the world, was one under par with three holes left.
With the fairways and greens softened by rain, the scoring opportunities were ample, even if the signature group failed to capitalize.
"We had a beautiful day to play golf," Mickelson said. "When the storm went away, the weather cleared up and we just had beautiful weather. We didn't play our best, but we didn't play terrible to where we shot ourselves in the foot. We are in a good position to come back out, finish the round strong and play our second round."
For years, Woods and Mickelson have given Doral galleries nothing less than superior play. Woods has won six times here. Mickelson, in addition to his runner-up finish in 2005, won here in 2009.
That is why the galleries ran to the 10th tee to greet them, and why Mickelson and Mackay were up early preparing for the task.
On Friday, they will all be back at the Blue Monster, Woods and Mickelson and thousands more. Doral is here. The Masters is around the corner. The season has begun.