UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Oh, Phil, you’re such a little tease.
Mickelson’s annual flirtation with U.S. Open glory began even earlier than usual this time around, as he went out on Thursday in the fourth tee time of the day, at 7:33 a.m., and promptly lit up Chambers Bay with three birdies in the first eight holes, to say nothing of a couple of gorgeous par-saves. His front-nine 32 was his best-ever opening salvo in an Open, but even this can serve as a cautionary tale: Mickelson started with a 33 in 2005 but faded badly from there, to 33rd place.
But when it comes to Mickelson and the national championship there is a powerful element of wish fulfillment, and it’s even more acute here in the Pacific Northwest, where there is a palpable pride at finally hosting an Open and collective nervousness in hopes that everything goes well. Mickelson at long last winning his U.S. Open and completing the career Grand Slam would instantly elevate this event, and so his early move up the leaderboard was greeted with rapturous cheers by the early-arriving crowd at Chambers Bay. Mickelson drove the ball more erratically on the back-nine, leading to three bogeys in a five-hole stretch, but he still got in with a one-under par 69, good for a tie for 12th place in the early going.
LEADERBOARD: Live Scores From The U.S. Open At Chambers Bay
“I'm very pleased with the way the round went,” Mickelson said. “I hit a lot of good shots today. I shot under par the first day of the U.S. Open. The first round was the round I was going to be most nervous [for], getting started. You don't want to have to fight to come back all the time. You want to get off to a solid start around par.”
And so he did, but it only gets harder from here. Mickelson turned 45 on Tuesday of Open week and he knows he’s running out of time. What does the man who has everything give himself for a present? For Mickelson, it was an 11.5 hour practice round. Though he has often seemed to be a practitioner of caveman golf, bombing and gouging with abandon, Phil the Thrill has one of the most analytical minds in golf, and the endless variation of Chambers Bay appeals to his cerebral side. His lifelong caddie Jim Mackay calls it “the perfect U.S. Open course for Phil”—because there’s more room to miss off the tee and the wild green complexes make chipping and pitching paramount.
If not now, when? Of course, that’s been the Mickelsonian rallying cry going back to at least 2008, when the Open was in his backyard at Torrey Pines. It was trotted out again in 2010, when he seemed to have a strong home-field advantage at Pebble Beach, where he’s won four times; in 2009 at Bethpage, where he’d contended until the bitter end at the previous Open; in 2013 at Merion, a petite course that allowed him rarely use driver; and again last year at Pinehurst, where he coulda shoulda won way back in 1999.
Based on his fine play at the last two major championships, Mickelson seems likely to hang around for the next two days, but Sunday at the United States Open is the most grueling day in golf, and will be even more so this time around. Chambers Bay is one of the toughest trudges on the planet, with over 1,200 feet of elevation change across the round. How much will an arthritic middle-aged dude have left in the tank come Sunday? At Merion, the fatigue was more mental than physical—Mickelson was carrying five wedges but somehow chose the wrong one on the tiny 13th hole, airmailing the green for a killing bogey. That’s why it’s best not to get too excited yet, because in Phil’s record six runner-up finishes he’s always found a new way to blow it on Sunday.
At Winged Foot in 2006, he hit only two fairways, visiting a garbage can and a hospitality tent on the closing two holes. At Pinehurst in 1999 he only *missed* two fairways but mediocre iron play doomed him to only one birdie. At Shinnecock in '04, he played some of the best golf of his life but then on the 71st hole made a mess of a seemingly routine bunker shot for a fatal double bogey. We could go on, but it’s too painful.
So, yes, it’s fun to have Phil around, as always. Watching him wedge his way around Chambers was a delight. He’s playing with a certain grit that characterizes his best showings, most notably willing into the hole a 15-footer on the 14th hole that allowed him to save a crucial bogey. Is it okay to be seduced by the idea of Phil finally giving the golf world what it so badly desires? Go ahead, enjoy the show.
Just don’t fall in love with the idea of Mickelson winning. That will spare you some heartbreak in the end.