SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At nine minutes after eight and beneath a bright, gauzy layer of clouds, Ryan Moore arrived at the 10th tee at TPC Scottsdale to a polite smattering of applause from a gallery that was growing by the minute. Moments later, Bill Haas got the same treatment.
When the man in the gray slacks and purple sweater and familiar swagger approached a minute later, he got an ovation. Welcome back, Phil Mickelson.
Phil is a beloved superstar everywhere he plays, but in Phoenix, as in his hometown of San Diego, he’s a living legend. And that legend began right here during his college career at Arizona State and grew as he made his home here for a number of years before moving back to San Diego.
The question of the week was, will he or won’t he? Mickelson tweaked his back in the thick rough at Torrey Pines last week and withdrew after 36 holes. There was doubt whether he’d be able to try to defend his Waste Management Phoenix Open title, especially when he begged out of Wednesday’s pro-am. So much doubt, in fact, that in Thursday’s official pairings sheet, the day’s designated featured pairing was Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Ian Poulter. Smart planning by the Thunderbirds, who put on this event, or someone in charge of the draw sheets. There would’ve been egg on a lot of faces if Phil’s face had been on the pairing sheet and he hadn’t been able to play.
The drama ended late on Wednesday afternoon when Phil met longtime caddie Jim “Bones” McKay at the swank Whisper Rock Golf Club a few miles north of here to test the back. “That was always the plan,” McKay said after Thursday’s opening round. Mickelson hit 35 to 40 balls on the Whisper Rock range, McKay said, and confirmed he was good to go. If there’s one regular Tour stop Phil doesn’t like to miss, this is the one. The crowds, the noise, the stage, the attention and, oh yeah, you may as well call it the House That Phil Built. Or at least the House That Phil Rents. He first won this event in 1996, did it again in 2005 and dazzled everyone last year with a first-round 59-and-a-half. It was officially 60, but his last birdie putt dived halfway into the cup before defying gravity and horseshoeing back out.
Phil lives. So this week’s WMPO, as the local headline writers call it, will be a success. Unlike last year, however, Phil has some ground to make up. He shot a very Phil-like 71 — even par with five birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey and a 10-foot eagle putt that he turned into a three-putt par. He looked awful at times; he looked brilliant at others. It was a classic Phil day but a good one after having to rest his back for almost a week.
“The back is fine,” Phil said after his round, a mantra he’ll undoubtedly have to repeat a few hundred times this week. “It was a five-minute fix. I just have to be careful not to overdo it this week hitting balls. I had three or four days where I couldn’t practice, all I could do was chip and putt.”
Mickelson’s round featured a poor start and a poor finish. In between, there were some encouraging highlights.
His first two tee shots, on 10 and 11, were weak cuts, not Phil’s preferred ball flight. He dropped a sand wedge shot into the front bunker on the opening hole from the middle of the fairway, a bad miss. He wasn’t able to spin his bunker shot much and left himself a 12-footer for par, which he poured in. At 11, his ball settled in the rough, perilously close to the water. He knocked it on the green and two-putted for par.
At the par-3 12th he hooked his iron shot into the pond right of the green, then played a lousy chip to 15 feet and made double bogey. It appeared that the battle between Phil and rust was going rust’s way. Then he made a desert-to-bunker birdie with a 15-foot putt at the 13th and another 15-footer from the fringe at 14. On a roll, he drilled a hybrid from more than 250 yards to 10 feet. The crowd at the grandstand whooped it up. Phil hated his eagle putt the instant he hit it. The ball drifted six feet past the cup. There were groans when the birdie putt didn’t drop.
That could’ve been a rally-killer, but he drove the green at the par-4 17th and two-putted for birdie, then picked up two more birdies on the front after hitting it close at Nos. 1 and 4. He was three under par.
Following Phil on this day was like watching a Ping-Pong match.
“I just wasn’t as sharp as I need to be today,” he said. “I had a poor start and I finished poor, but I had a good little run in the middle. The one on 15 really stung. I was only 10 or 12 feet for eagle, and I rolled it by and three-putted.” He found greenside bunkers at the 7th and 9th holes and didn’t make par. “Those were careless shots,” he said. “Those were two easy bunker shots.”
All is still well with Phil. It always is. He is eternally optimistic. He’s confident he can shore up some of Thursday’s loose shots before he goes back out on Friday afternoon. Still, he’s seven strokes off the low Thursday morning score of 64, posted by 2009 PGA champ Y.E. Yang.
“I feel like I have a low round in me,” Phil said.
Of course he does. And, by the way, the back is fine. Just so you know.