Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson still in contention after rocky opening rounds

April 6, 2012

AUGUSTA, Ga. — As Rory McIlroy stood on the 10th tee during the first round of the 2012 Masters, at least one salient swing thought rushed through his mind.

"Well, I wasn't going left, that's for sure," McIlroy said after posting a one-under 71.

And he didn’t.

Nearly a year removed from the snap hook on the 10th hole that triggered his startling demise in the fourth round of the 2011 Masters, McIlroy blocked his tee shot into the trees on the opposite side of the fairway. From there, he fashioned a nifty punch-out that checked up just short of the green. An up-and-down later, he had his par, a three-shot improvement from the last time he played this par 4 in competition.

The sequence was a microcosm of McIlroy’s scrappy round Thursday, which started with a three-putt double at the first, included a water ball at the 13th, and concluded with a pair of birdies at 17 and 18, both par 4s.

Playing behind McIlroy, in the final grouping, was another player shouldering lofty expectations in this 76th Masters: Phil Mickelson. Like McIlroy, Mickelson also experienced a wild ride on his way to a five-birdie 74.

His brighter moments were neutralized at—where else?—the 10th, where Lefty smashed a wicked slice deep into the pines.

“I didn’t think they had jungle like that at Augusta National,” said Mickelson, who hit only nine fairways and eight greens in regulation.

More than two dozen fans helped him search the brush for his ball, but none came up with it. Mickelson had to play his provisional. He said that it was the first time he had lost a ball at Augusta.

Despite his late tee time, Mickelson got an early start Thursday. The three-time Masters champ wanted to watch Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit their ceremonial tee shots, so like hundreds of other wide-eyed fans, he showed up not long after sunrise for a glimpse of the Big 3.

After the legends whacked their tee balls, Mickelson snuck in a practice session with his coach, Butch Harmon, and then returned to his rental home for a pre-round nap. His first, rocky round behind him, Mickelson's still in this thing, and so is McIlroy. But if either is going to slip on the green jacket Sunday evening, they’ll need to play with more consistency.

As they both know well, Augusta National only suffers inconsistency for so long.