AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil Mickelson looked like he was hunting for Easter eggs on the 13th hole of Augusta National today. After blowing his drive into the dogwoods and azalea bushes that populate the left-hand corner of the dogleg, Mickelson and his caddie, Jim Mackay, strode deep into the shrubs, bobbing up and down as they searched for his ball.
It turned up, but the ensuing shot was far less dramatic than the pine-splitting, history-making 6-iron he ripped to four feet on this very hole a year ago. Mickelson calmly chipped out back to the fairway, knocked his approach to 20 feet and two-putted for his 5.
Hey, it’s only Masters Thursday. No need for pyrotechnics. Not yet. Even Lefty knows that.
Everybody’s favorite in this 75th Masters, Mickelson got off to a sound if unspectacular start in the first round, posting a 2-under-par 70 that left him five back of co-leaders Rory McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros.
Followed by swarms of spectators, which at one point included LPGA star Paula Creamer, Mickelson didn’t make a birdie until the par-5 8th. Two more birdies at 14 and 15 took him to 3-under, but Mickelson gave one back at the par-4 home hole when his approach from the right rough bounded off the slope on the left side of the green and came to rest in a fan’s plastic merchandise bag. Mickelson took a drop from there, but couldn’t get up and down to save his par.
“It’s O.K., just O.K.,” Mickelson said of his round, moments before he was shuttled to the range to work out some kinks. “I didn’t shoot myself out of it, but I didn’t make up ground on the field the way I wanted to. So I’ve to go do it tomorrow.”
Mickelson had toyed with the idea of carrying two drivers in his bag this week — a strategy he employed successfully at the 2006 Masters — but he decided against it Thursday because he said he felt like he might need his 3-iron on the 240-yard par-3 4th and also on the par-5 15th, where the wind was gusting into the players’ faces.
“I also was driving it really well last week [at the Shell Houston Open] and didn’t want to overthink it or mess with it,” Mickelson said. “So I ended up on the range this morning and just decided to go with that one.”
Those good swings in Houston seemed to miss the flight to Georgia. Mickelson hit just four fairways Thursday. At the long par-4 5th, he pushed his tee shot into a fairway bunker. “Hook! Hook!” he pleaded. At the par-4 10th, he pulled his tee shot deep into the pines, leaving himself no option but to hit a low punch shot just short of green. At 13 came the wild block into the azaleas.
“I scrambled well today to stay in, but I also let four or five birdie opportunities slide,” he said. “I’m going to have to capitalize on those opportunities tomorrow if I’m going to go low.”
Volatility and unpredictability are Mickelson’s calling cards. Whether he’s standing in the pine trees or over a five-footer, you never know what’s coming next. Heading into the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the San Diego muni Mickelson decimated during his junior golf days and later at the PGA Tour event held there, Lefty was the hometown favorite, if not the prohibitive favorite with Tiger Woods coming off knee surgery.
Mickelson never played like it. With all eyes on the SoCal kid, he opened 71-75, and on Saturday he made a quadruple-bogey 9 on his way to a 76. He eventually finished tied for 14th.
That might be a cautionary tale for this year’s Masters. Or it might not.
With Phil, you just never know.