AUGUSTA, Ga. – Fighting his way through a windswept afternoon, Phil Mickelson got a much-needed boost from his favorite shot at Augusta National.
The tee shot at the fabled par-5 13th hole requires a sweeping right-to-left cut (for a lefty) and Mickelson earlier this week declared the shot his personal favorite and the most important on the course. On a bright afternoon here Thursday, Mickelson carved one perfectly around that corner to set up a birdie and reignite a round that had started to go sideways.
"It allowed me to get it up, to go for the green," Mickelson said. "It allowed me to play for birdie and I ended up making birdie because I was able to take advantage of the short game."
Mickelson parred 14 and 15, knocked his tee shot to three feet on 16 and made two stress-free pars coming home for a one-under 71, leaving him six shots behind leader Charley Hoffman through 18 holes.
Mickelson's first round in this, his 25th career Masters, featured a mix of wayward drives (10 of 14 fairways hit), feathery pitch shots and deft putting. There was also one unwavering constant: his status as Augusta's fan favorite.
Minutes before Mickelson kicked off his round, two women of a certain age leaned over the ropes near the practice green for an unobstructed look at the three-time jacket winner. "Oh, they have a huge crush on Phil," said one of the lady's husbands, which prompted the second husband to turn and say with a grin:
"Hell, we do, too."
Clad in head-to-toe black, with spikeless shoes (perhaps a career first), Mickelson drove his opening tee shot into the right fairway bunker and salvaged par. On the par-5 2nd, he drove it down the left side of the fairway, ripped an iron to the center of the green and canned the 42-footer for eagle, raising a fist as the crowd erupted.
"Oh, that was cool," Mickelson said. "To make a putt for eagle and get the round started like that was exciting. But I knew there were still a lot of tough holes left out there and just trying to make pars was kind of the goal."
He dropped an 11-footer for birdie on the par-3 4th, but had his first hiccup on the 5th hole, one of Augusta's toughest. He drove it up the right side of the fairway, near the gallery ropes, and when he arrived at his ball, Mickelson, no doubt proud of his hot start, sauntered a couple of strides closer to the fans and said with a grin: "Good morning." The small group of perplexed patrons blurted, "Good morning!"
Sufficiently loose, Mickelson conferred with his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay. "83 to the top," said Bones, meaning Phil had 183 yards to reach the flagstick perched on the treacherous green's back level. But Mickelson fanned it to the front corner and three-putted from 60 feet for a momentum-killing bogey.
He promptly bogeyed 6, 10 and 11, and appeared to be teetering when he arrived at 13. But then Mickelson shaped that tee shot around the corner and never missed another fairway after hitting just five of his first nine.
After storms washed away most of Monday and Wednesday's practice rounds, the sun sparkled all day long, but wind gusts topping 35 mph wreaked havoc on the field. That also happens to be the kind of weather Mickelson now relishes as he attempts to become the oldest champion in Masters history.
"I love it. I love it around here especially because the wind is going to magnify your misses and a lot of the guys that aren't familiar with this course and where you can go on certain holes for certain pins will miss in the wrong spot and end up making big numbers," he said.
"I might miss it big, but I'll miss it in the right spot and I'll have a good chance to salvage par."
On Thursday the hits outnumbered the misses, and his favorite tee shot just might have been the biggest hit of all.