Poor putting — and a few bad decisions — cost Phil on Thursday

Phil Mickelson made four bogeys and no birdies on Thursday.
Al Tielemans/SI

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — By the time Phil Mickelson stood on the fifth green, his 14th hole of the day at the 110th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach on Thursday, the scoreboard said it all: "Michelson 4."

  As if the indignities of having his name spelled wrong and being four over par weren't enough, he also had to wait out a 25-minute backup on the sixth tee.

  The final tally was even worse: four bogeys, two balls into the ocean, five missed birdie putts of 10 feet or less, no birdies and a homely 75.

  "It's just frustrating because I came in here prepared, I came in ready," Mickelson said after signing his card and decamping to the practice putting green. "I gave myself a lot of opportunities but I just putted terrible."

  The score marked the second worst first round of Mickelson's 20-year U.S. Open career. The usual Open bloodletting starts with a drip, then two drips, which lead to a rivulet and then, if everything goes wrong, a full hemorrhage.

  Mickelson's day wasn't that bad. With the exception of 17 and 18, where he seemed to lose his composure, he played reasonably well from tee to green. But his scores were like his outfit: all black, no red.

  "We still have three rounds left," said Mickelson, who will go off the first tee at 1:36 p.m. local time, 4:36 Eastern on Friday. "If I shoot under par tomorrow I'll be right back in it."

  After missing short birdie putts on 14 and 15, Mickelson showed his frustration with his two worst shots of the day, a 5-iron that strayed left and one-hopped over the cliff on the 222-yard, par-3 17th hole; and a desperate 3-wood from 252 yards on 18 that split the two trees in the fairway but didn't hook as planned. It caromed off the seawall and into the surf.

  That second mishap was pure Mickelson, a daring/crazy attempt to replicate his heroics from the pine straw at the Masters two months ago, but with a 3-wood instead of a 6-iron. This one ended up an unintentional gift to the harbor seals instead of an instant Callaway commercial.

  "I was trying to hook it and get in the front bunker," Mickelson later told the media, who were too polite to ask if he noticed the right-to-left breeze that was pointing the flags behind the green toward Honolulu.

  This was supposed to be Mickelson's best chance to break through at the U.S. Open, the tournament that has vexed him like none other. He has, altogether now, five second-place finishes, but no victories. He wants one badly, and he knows how to score at Pebble Beach, where the ashtray-sized greens play to Mickelson's freakishly developed short game.

  Does he want it too badly? It didn't seem that way Thursday. He was loose enough as he stood on the 13th tee to notice a man in a San Diego Chargers sweatshirt, which happens to be Phil's favorite team.

  "Nice sweatshirt, man," Mickelson said.

  Walking the circuitous path from the 18th green to the first tee, he saw a white-haired acquaintance in a green golf shirt with "Barclays" and "Callaway" emblazoned in white, and gave him a knuckle-bump.

  Mickelson had just made the turn in three over, but the easier front nine awaited. It didn't seem unreasonable to expect him to turn it around. After he finished, he said he "may have keyed in on" his problem on the greens with his post-round putting session. But he still planned to call his coach, Dave Stockton, "to see if he saw anything" on TV.

  Putting was only Mickelson's most conspicuous problem.

  On the par-4 11th hole, his second of the day, he flew the green with a wedge from the middle of the fairway. His ball nestled into the rough between the putting surface and the back bunker, and Mickelson opened his wedge and hit a soft, swinging chip shot that trickled six feet past the hole.

  He made the ensuing par putt, but distance-control problems persisted.

  Mickelson blew his iron approach well past the pin and all the way to the back of the 13th green, but he nearly holed his next shot, a lengthy birdie putt that broke severely from left to right.

  He hit iron for safety off the 16th and first tees but watched as his ball in both cases rolled inches too far and into fairway bunkers. His lie was so bad on 16 that he was forced to chip out sideways, leading to his first bogey.

  All of those mistakes could have been erased with a hot putter.

  How does the second best player on earth hit the ball reasonably well and shoot four over?

  "It just says a lot about the U.S. Open," said Padraig Harrington, who played in Mickelson's group and shot 73.

  Y.E. Yang, who missed a two-and-a-half-foot putt on the 11th hole, also signed for a 73.

  Who would have thought that Mickelson, coming off his fourth major championship victory at the Masters, would have the worst score of the three? Who would have thought that after the first 18 holes he would be mired in an umpteen-way tie for oblivion with such illustrious names as Ty Tryon, Mikko Ilonen, Jon Curran and Bobby Gates?

  It was assumed when Mickelson putted terribly at the Memorial two weeks ago, his last start, that there was something that confounded him about the greens at Muirfield Village, where he's never won. But it seems to have carried over to Pebble Beach, where he's won three times.

  The highlight of the day came on the par-4 fourth hole, where Mickelson tugged his tee shot into a fairway bunker. Playing out of order while Harrington figured out his own errant tee shot, Mickelson splashed his ball into the front of that same bunker. He started to smooth his footprints but quickly realized that the action might be construed as testing the sand for his next shot. He put up his hands as if he were playing in the World Cup and had just furtively kicked his opponent in the fibula.

  It seemed the pre-tournament favorite might be dealt a penalty stroke on top of everything else, the final indignity in a day of missed opportunities, when Pebble was in the estimation of Mickelson (and others) "playable" and ripe for red numbers. Alas, Mickelson was not.

  The USGA's official ruling on the matter: "If he had kicked the sand in frustration, he would have incurred a penalty for testing the hazard, but since he was smoothing his foot prints and did not improve his line for the next stroke (13-2), there was no breach.

  "There was no penalty for playing out of order because Mickelson didn't do so to give anyone an advantage."

  Mickelson said: "It's a natural habit for me to kind of kick in my footprints for Bones [longtime caddie Jim Mackay] when he rakes."

  As a play of the day, it wasn't much. The best thing anyone could say about this particular morning at the office for Phil: It's early.

 

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