PINEHURST, N.C. -- You may have felt a small jolt mid-morning on Thursday. Don’t be alarmed, people, that was just the Earth wobbling on its axis as Phil Mickelson moved into a tie for the lead at the 114th United States Open.
It was only a temporary aberration, however. Mickelson finished what seemed like the most important 18 holes of his life at even-par 70 and the third rock from the sun quickly returned to its regular orbit. He was five behind Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who shot 65.
If it seemed like the weight of the world was on Mickelson’s shoulders during the first round, that’s probably because it was. America’s favorite left-handed golfer is the only story the media can see at the U.S. Open, for obvious reasons.
•The Open is Mickelson’s white whale, the major he can’t land. He has been runner-up a record six times and leads the league in heartbreakers.
•He needs an Open to complete the career Grand Slam, which is about the only way he can get on the same history plane as Tiger Woods, one of five legends who have won all four major championships, because Phil is never going to catch Tiger in major titles or total victories.
•There’s the ’99 Open backstory right here at Pinehurst No. 2. Phil was prepared to rush back to Scottsdale, Ariz., to be with his wife, Amy, for the birth of their first child, then was edged on the final green by Payne Stewart.
•And there’s the FBI/SEC investigation into insider trading. Mickelson has been questioned about it, although according to published reports on Thursday, the FBI has already exonerated him.
Throw in that he hadn’t had a top 10 on the PGA Tour since winning the British Open last July, and for Mickelson to grab a share of the first-round lead for a while was a Ron Burgundy kind-of-a-big-deal moment. This is exactly why ESPN pays big money to televise Thursday morning golf at the Open.
The first round had a little bit of everything, from a rash of early low scoring like Brandt Snedeker’s opening 31 (which would’ve been 30 if he hadn’t pushed a short birdie putt at the 9th); to reality checks like Snedeker’s 6-6-5 start on his second nine; to traditional unexpected first-round contenders such as Sweden’s Henrik Norlander (by way of Augusta State) and Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard (by way of Florida State); to a Stewart tribute by the game’s most colorful show pony, Rickie Fowler, who wore white plus-fours with sky-blue socks and shirt.
A mix of name players added validity to the leader board. Kaymer, a former PGA champion who won The Players last month and whose game looks as new and improved as Pinehurst’s No. 2 course itself, surged with three birdies in the last five holes for 65 and a stunning three-stroke lead.
The posse of players bunched at 69 included Matt Kuchar, who led most of the morning before a pair of late bogeys; Henrik Stenson; Snedeker; Masters runnerup Jordan Spieth; former PGA champ Keegan Bradley; Dustin Johnson; and Memorial winner Hideki Matsuyama.
One missing star was Masters champ Bubba Watson, a late finisher who struggled in at 76. “A couple over is not too bad,” Watson said glumly. “Six over is not where you want to be.”
But Thursday was all about Phil. He started on No. 10 and quickly went to two under through five holes. After a bogey at the tough par-3 15th and a string of seven straight pars, he got back to two under with a birdie at the 5th. He bogeyed the 6th and 8th holes, however, and he got alarmingly frisky with his 15-foot birdie putt from above the hole at the 9th. Phil’s switch to a claw putting grip on shorter putts and a couple of hours of putting practice on Wednesday paid off, though, as he poured in the six-foot par putt.
“It’s a good start,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t hurt myself any. I had a chance to get three, four or five under day. The one club that’s hurting me is the putter. So I’ve got to get that turned around.”
Mickelson played the course aggressively and used driver nine or 10 times, by his count, because he was hitting it so well. “That’s an unusual thing for me,” he admitted.
Caddie Jim (Bones) MacKay noticed that Mickelson wasn’t getting his eyes directly over the ball at address on his putts, and Phil believes that could be the answer to his inconsistent putting. “I don’t feel like I’m hitting bad putts, I’m just missing them a little bit on the sides. I’m not that far off.”
He has no timetable for sticking with the claw grip.
“It might be weeks, it might be months, it might be days, hours, I don't know,” Mickelson said. “Last year I putted just so well for a year and a half (conventionally), and I’ve kind of overdone what I was doing. The claw helps with my alignment. It keeps my lines straight and it takes some pressure and hit out of it with the bottom hand.”
The performance was one of Mickelson’s better ones in what has been a disappointing season. His chipping and pitching looked particularly sharp, a key in any Open. “I do feel that this tournament, or this golf course, gives me a great chance because I don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “I can hit a ridiculously bad iron shot like I did on number two and I can still get up and down. I still have 100 percent confidence that I’ll be able to break through and get [an Open].”
Step one to winning the Open is not playing your way out of it on Thursday. Mission accomplished, Phil.