Phil Gets Nothing and Likes It

By Mercer BaggsJune 15, 2006, 4:00 pm
U.S. OpenMAMARONECK, N.Y. -- After extensive preparation, Phil Mickelson finally got the chance Thursday to employ all of his Winged Foot knowledge in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Roughly 10 days worth of work and practice, and he got absolutely nothing, zero, not a single shot under par. And he couldnt be happier at this point.
Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson had two birdies and two bogeys in his even-par 70 Thursday.
I was very pleased with even par, Mickelson said. I would have taken it from the start.
Mickelson, who relaxed Wednesday by playing a leisurely round at nearby Baltusrol, where he won the 2005 PGA Championship, hit nine of 14 fairways, but only eight of 18 greens in regulation. His was a working-mans 70, even if it didnt really feel overly laborious.
It looks on paper like it was a lot harder than I think it felt, he said.
Thats because Mickelson made it easy on himself. Thats right, the guy who once swore to a room full of media members, and to anyone else listening, that he would never forgo his aggressive game plan, come Hell or high water, played intelligently not instinctively in round 1.
When he missed, said Mickelsons short-game instructor Dave Pelz, he missed on the correct side. He didnt leave himself in bad spots.
For all of his obvious skills, Mickelsons mental approach may prove to be his best asset this week. Having followed him over his final 10 holes of the opening round, it appeared that he was contemplating each shot in terms of How can I avoid a bogey? as opposed to How can I make birdie?
When Mickelson rolled in his 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, his ninth of the day, to get back to even par, it marked his sixth consecutive one-putt. Just prior to the 18th, he had missed six consecutive greens in regulation. Three of those missed G.I.R.s came after driving the ball in the fairway, and one of them came on a par-3.
But while he wasnt accurate, he was cautious and protective ' and thats the difference between even-par and 2 or 3 over.
The greens are going to be very tough to hit here. The ball was having a hard time getting stopped on these greens. I was fortunate in that I had some good preparation; I was able to put the ball on the correct sides of the greens to have pretty easy up-and-downs, he said.
Mickelson had to get up-and-down 10 times, and he did so on eight of those opportunities. One of the times that he failed to do so was at the par-4 second, his 10th hole of the day, but that was only because his 3-foot par save took a violent trip all the way around the cup before deciding to stay in the light.
But dont go thinking that Mickelson is getting soft out there (no, thats not a wisecrack about his physique). Take for example his approach to the 321-yard, par-4 sixth. After three-putting for par at the par-5 fifth, Mickelson used driver on the short par-4 instead of scaling back with a fairway metal or long iron.
He hit his drive over 300 yards, and it came to rest some 50 feet from the front of the green; though, a bunker separated him from the hole. Mickelson hit a low-trajectory shot, instead of a flop shot, from there and the ball flew past the pin and spun off the right side of the green. He managed to again get up-and-down for par.
When I asked if he hit driver out of frustration from the three-putt on the previous hole, he said no, and when I asked if he would hit driver again off that tee later in the week, he said yes.
Thats the plan to certain pins. When it was into the wind, I couldnt reach the green, so I thought if it played into the wind I would hit driver and leave that chip that I had, he explained. It was an easy chip; I just botched it.
My plan to that pin was to hit driver, and if it was downwind I wanted to hit driver into the front bunker ' either way I planned on hitting driver. right now, I plan on hitting drivers (for the rest of the week on No. 6).
As for which driver he will be hitting for the remainder of the week, that isnt certain. He used his fade driver solely on Thursday, the shorter, in terms of distance, of the two drivers that he used in his Masters victory two months ago. But, as the winds pick up even more and the fairways get harder and faster, he said that he may switch to the 43-inch driver he had specially made for this event (his fade driver is 45-inches and gives him a little more distance than the 43-inch version, but it is not as long as the draw driver he also used at Augusta).
Mickelson hit his ball off the tee into the rough five times Thursday, but could only twice recall hitting it into the second cut of primary rough, which, in certain spots, covered the top of my pen when I stuck the tip slightly into the ground.
That stuff is thick and tough to get it out of, he said. I thought the course was very, very fair, though.
Most of the time when Mickelson was playing from the rough, he just took out a wedge and wacked his ball back into the fairway to give him a chance to save par from inside 100 yards. On the first hole, though, his 10th of the day, he played a 4-wood out of the second primary cut and was able to advance his ball to within 15 yards of the front of the green.
You can get some spots to hit out of, he said. But still, I dont think I ever got one on the green (from the first or second cut of primary rough).'
His statistics verify that, showing that every time he missed a fairway, he failed to reach a green in regulation.
And still he shot even-par, which keeps him in wonderful shape to win his third consecutive major title, and his first U.S. Open championship. It was his own version of Dr. Strangeround: or How I Learned to Stop Pressing and Love the Par.
Now if he can just stay there. Mickelson believes that he may have already experienced the best scoring conditions of the week. With no rain in the forecast, but plenty of sun and wind, its going to get incrementally ' and incredibly ' more difficult.
Even (par) is a good score. I happen to think over par is going to win it, but thats just because I suspect the course will play harder and faster as the week wears on, making the greens tougher to hit to, to chip to, and to putt on, he said.
Good thing hes got a good game plan. And good thing ' for him, not the field ' that hes adhering to it.
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