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Phil Mickelson struggles to 73 at Players Championship

Photo: Fred Vuich/SI

Phil Mickelson shot a one-over 73.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Phil Mickelson started well and ended well. It was the middle part that needed some work.

Despite making birdie on three of his first four holes, and finishing his round with a birdie three on the watery 18th , Mickelson stumbled to a 1-over 73 in the first round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.

"I was surprised, I'll tell you that," Butch Harmon said after watching his pupil hit just seven of 14 fairways and seven of 18 greens in regulation.

Harmon wasn't the only one taken aback by Phil's final score. "I had a great start," said Mickelson, who as a two-time winner in 2009 and the champion here two years ago was a pre-tournament favorite. "I thought it was going to be a wonderful round — I had a great practice session — and then it just kind of left me there."

Mickelson's Thursday afternoon began to unravel on the par-4 sixth hole, which, as it happened, was where an unruly spectator was removed from the course for heckling the lefthander. "I'll let Bones and security handle that," Mickelson said, referring to his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay. "That stuff happens." Lefty made a bogey five on the hole, the first of six bogeys in an 11-hole stretch that left him tied for 79th place, eight shots behind leader Ben Crane.

Mickelson's worst bogey was probably from the middle of the fairway on the par-5 16th hole, where he went for the green and pulled his long-iron shot into the water.

Upon further reflection, Mickelson admitted he might have worked too hard in the heat on Thursday morning. Trying to make up for the fact that he would be unable to practice before his 8:20 a.m. tee time on Friday, he toiled on the range for two hours.

"I went and spent time on the greens because they were quick," Mickelson said. "I was trying to get the speed down. I felt like it was necessary. I didn't want to do it Wednesday. I wanted to get away."

And how. On Wednesday Mickelson played 18 holes at nearby Timuquana Country Club with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow — a round Mickelson enjoyed talking about more than his 73 at Sawgrass "He's got a lot of clubhead speed, hits the ball pretty good," Mickelson said of the Heisman Trophy winner. "Not a bad player at all. We had a good day."

The two had a football-throwing contest, Mickelson added, and not surprisingly the Gators QB won by two yards — throwing from one knee. "I let him hit my driver," Mickelson said. "I remember that he used my driver because there's a big mark on the top of it, so I have a memento of the day."

Thursday, though, was a day to forget. When it was done, Harmon was curious if he and his most famous student would be heading back to the range, despite the fact that Mickelson usually doesn't hit balls after his rounds. True to form, Phil wasn't in the mood to beat more balls.

"No, because I know I'm playing well, even though the score doesn't show it," Mickelson said. "When I get dialed in I hit some good shots, like the [approach] shot on 18. I'm not too worried. I just need to get in a good frame of mind and put together a good round."

At least one other member's of Phil's camp was similarly unruffled: Joan DeVaney of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is officially Phil's Biggest Fan, identified during a promotion sponsored by Crowne Plaza Hotels and Resorts, and as such got to be in a commercial with Mickelson in February 2008.

"He was just the nicest, most generous person," DeVaney said. "His whole family — I met 'em all, his wife, his press agent ..."

When Mickelson ran into DeVaney at the Players in May 2008, he gave the super-fan and her two sisters clubhouse passes, as he'd promised during filming. She was beaming; he had remembered. For this year's first round, the diminutive DeVaney followed her favorite player all 18 , wearing her "Go Phil" T-shirt and "Go Phil" hat. She hugged Amy, Phil's wife, when they ran into each other outside the gallery ropes on 18. Joan joked that she had enough "Go Phil" apparel to give some to Amy to wear on Friday.

Mickelson knocked in his three-foot birdie putt on 18, a sweet ending to a mostly sour round, and the two women cheered wildly. Fifty-seven players had broken par on this day, and their man wasn't one of them. But still they had hope.

"It's early," said DeVaney, who plans to attend the Barclays and possibly the U.S. Open, both in New York, later this year. "There's still three days left for scoring. He's proven he comes back."

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