Phil 'can't hit it any worse' after opening 74

Phil Mickelson, 2011 U.S. Open
Al Tielemans/SI
Phil Mickelson found himself in some tough spots on Thursday.

BETHESDA, Md. — Phil Mickelson turned 41 on Thursday, so fans at the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" as he walked into the clubhouse to sign his scorecard. Inside, his wife, Amy, gave him a hug and began to sympathize after a long day.

Mickelson wouldn't have it. He knew that from where he hit it, he could have very easily shot 80 or higher. He shot 74.

"I can't hit it any worse," he said.

Mickelson, the five-time runner-up and the people's choice, began his day by dumping his opening tee shot into the water fronting the green on the hated par-3 10th hole, leading to double-bogey. After a day that started with that shot, there was nothing to do but try to find the positives. He had no three-putts, taking just 27 strokes on the greens, and he made pars from places course architect Devereux Emmet and "Open Doctor" Rees Jones probably never imagined anyone hitting the ball.

In short, Mickelson hadn't been this far out of whack since he hit just two fairways in the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

"I don't normally play four days perfectly," he said. "So this was my bad round."

He's already nine behind playing partner and leader Rory McIlroy, whose 65, Mickelson allowed, was very impressive.

"Although I didn't see much of it," he added.

Indeed, Mickelson hit his tee shot so far left on the par-4 14th hole, it was a small miracle he recovered his ball. He hacked out of waist-high weeds and bogeyed. He was so out of position on the par-5 16th hole — in the left rough again, up against a tree — that he used a driver to slap a low cut through the foliage. Par.

Whenever the U.S. Open is held at Pinehurst No. 2, much is made of the course's mascot and logo, Putter Boy. If Thursday had its own logo, it would be Mickelson looking at the ground, his right arm holding the club and his left over his head with his hand cradling his skull. The head-in-hand thing has become Mickelson's unofficial U.S. Open pose. It conveys frustration. It conveys disbelief. It conveys the hope that someone kept an eye on his Callaway.

And yet ... if Mickelson can go low in soft conditions Friday, who knows? Not that he was aware of it, but Bubba Watson, the fellow lefty who beat him at the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year, hit 13 of 14 fairways and shot even-par 71. Mickelson hit five fairways but shot just three shots worse.

Was it the driver that was killing him? The custom 2-iron? The lefts? The rights?

"It was a little of everything," Mickelson said. "This sometimes happens when I take the week off before a major. I come out swinging tight."

The rain was starting to come down hard now; Mickelson, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson had finished just in time. Somehow, despite the calamities, Mickelson remained in the top half of the field, tied for 62nd place. In the locker room, he ran into Martin Laird, the Scot who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, and asked how he'd done.

"A couple over," Laird said.

"I'm right there with you," Mickelson replied.

He'll go off No. 1 at 7:55 a.m. Eastern on Friday.

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