FARMINGDALE, NY — The biggest crowd on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park may have been following Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson on Thursday, but the tri-state area's adopted son, Phil Mickelson, shot an under-the-radar 68 to put himself in the mix at the Barclays Championship.
"It was a nice start to this event, and obviously I didn't light it up, but I shot three under and it's got me in a good position starting the tournament," Mickelson said afterward.
Mickelson hasn't been putting himself in a good position too often since the Masters. Today's 68 was just the third time in Mickelson's last 17 rounds that he's broken par. He had not carded a round this low relative to par since he shot a four-under 66 on Sunday at the HP Byron Nelson Championship on May 20.
While Mickelson's putting and short game were sharp, the Hall of Famer said his irons helped him overcome a shaky day on the tee. Mickelson hit just six of 14 fairways on the Black Course, but he found the green in regulation 13 of 18 times.
"Gosh, my game really took a turn, for the positive, at the PGA on the weekend when I really started to strike it well," he said. "Today was really close to being good. I didn't drive it as well as I've been driving it these last 10 days. If I can get that going, and put the ball in the fairway off the tee, which I've been doing of late, I really think there is an extra-low round out here."
At best, missing fairways on a course like Bethpage Black can rob a player of scoring chances. At worst, hitting into the knee-high fescue can mean making bogeys, doubles or "others."
Hitting a 5-wood off the tee in hopes of taking a fairway bunker on the left out of play on the 396-yard, par-4 sixth hole, Mickelson got lucky after blocking the shot left.
"I have never seen a lie like that," he said. "I had grass from the rough, but at the base there was sand from the bunker. I thought it was going to come out dead, like a bunker shot because it was sitting on sand — being just a foot off the lip — but there were a few strands of grass from the rough and the ball ended up jumping and going over the green."
But that didn't prove to be a problem because Mickelson hit his 48-foot bunker shot to within three feet of the hole and tapped in for par.
That up-and-down from the sand was good, but Mickelson's playing partners — Luke Donald and Scott Piercy — hit the fairway and made birdies.
"I look at that as costing me about half a shot, or three-quarters of a shot, by not getting it into that fairway," he said.
Maybe that's true, but judging by the cheers Mickelson and his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, got on nearly every hole, the New York crowd was thrilled just to see the four-time major winner back at Bethpage.
"Is he a freakin' magician with that wedge or what?" one Long Islander said to his pal after Mickelson's save on the sixth. "I mean, it's magic man. He's the opposite of you, Mike!"
Mickelson not only thrilled the crowd with exciting golf, he handed out 10 golf balls to little kids standing along the ropes, fist-bumped fans walking off nearly every green and took a few moments after hitting his tee shot on the second hole to shake hands and speak briefly with some special fans who were wearing Air Force jumpsuits.
"I could tell those guys were pilots," he said, "and my dad was a military pilot, so I just wanted to say hello."
After Mickelson hit a 7-iron to 16 feet on the par-3 eighth hole, a father turned to his son, who looked about 10, and said: "I don't give a s— who I watch, I just wanted to see Phil. After that, everything else is bonus."
If Mickelson can hit a few more fairways, that dad will not only have a chance to clean up his language over the weekend, but he might also see Mickelson take a big step toward winning the FedEx Cup.