AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — On a day when the winds swirled and the greens hardened, Phil Mickelson carried two drivers in his bag to try and better navigate his way around Augusta National.
He might have had a better chance using two putters.
The drivers certainly didn’t do much for Mickelson, who found himself constantly having to hit out of trees and fairway bunkers in a front nine Thursday that did some damage to his hopes of becoming only the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters.
But it was on the greens where the real trouble lurked, with Mickelson chunking one chip and missing a handful of short putts before rebounding with three clutch putts down the stretch for a 4-over 76 that could have been a lot worse.
“I’m not as concerned about the driver as some of the short putts I missed,” Mickelson said. “You gotta make the short ones. If I make the short ones, I’m even par.”
Mickelson played the final four holes 2 under par, following a short birdie putt on the par-5 15th with a 30-footer for birdie on the 16th. He then saved par with a 15-footer on 17 after hitting yet another drive into the trees, and finished with a routine par.
It wasn’t pretty, but it left the defending champion feeling a little better about his chances of being in contention on the weekend.
“Even par is going to be in the hunt tomorrow,” he said. “If I can go out there and shoot a solid 68, I’m in contention.”
For a time in Thursday’s opening round, it appeared Mickelson was headed not for a 68 but a 78.
In trouble right off the opening tee when he let a tee shot slide into the pine straw on the left, he made bogey there and the fun was just beginning. After a birdie at the short par-4 third hole, Lefty played the next four holes 5 over, including a double bogey from the bushes on No. 5.
He was going nowhere fast when he walked down the eighth fairway and told caddie Jim Mackay that his new goal for the day was now to shoot under par on the remaining 11 holes.
Mission accomplished on that one, though things looked dicey after Mickelson bogeyed both the 12th and 14th holes before rebounding with his two straight birdies.
“I accomplished a mini-goal, if you will,” Mickelson said.
Smaller goals were the story of the day all around Augusta National, where firm greens and sometimes tricky gusts caused scores to soar. The 76 tied Mickelson’s worst round ever in the Masters, but didn’t put him in immediate danger of missing the cut like he did the last time he shot 76 in the opening round 10 years ago.
Still, no one has ever won the Masters after shooting higher than 75 on Thursday. And Mickelson came to Augusta to win a third green jacket, not get a top 10 finish.
“There’s birdies out there,” Mickelson said. “It was tough in swirling winds and with the greens so firm. But I didn’t feel it was unmanageable by any means.”
What was unmanageable was Mickelson’s putter, which has let Lefty down at crucial times in the past, especially on the short ones. And making short putts is a must on Augusta’s slick and undulating greens that proved so frustrating to Mickelson in the first round.
That’s why Mickelson went directly from the 18th green to the practice putting green, where he immediately started stroking 5-footers under the watchful eye of his coach, Rick Smith.
Mickelson has traditionally ranked as one of the best putters in the Masters, a big reason why he has won two of the last three. He needed 30 putts in the opening round, not a bad number, but many of them were short putts for par because Mickelson also kept missing fairways and greens.
Even with two drivers in the bag for proper trajectory and position, he hit only six of Augusta National’s 14 ample fairways. He putted for birdie only eight times, making four of them against six bogeys and a double bogey.
Even worse by Mickelson standards was that he stubbed a chip and made bogey on No. 7.
He wasn’t going to blame the conditions, though, and said he thought the course played fair.
“I thought the course was set up fine,” he said. “It’s a tough course and a tough setup for everybody.”