As far as season openers go, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy gave fans plenty of reasons for optimism in Abu Dhabi.
Sure, a case could be made that they both left the desert lamenting their mental mistakes – Phil the double-hit in the final round that led to a triple bogey, Rory the two-shot penalty Saturday for taking an improper drop. But even though they finished a shot behind surprise winner Pablo Larrazabal, the biggest takeaway from Abu Dhabi was the play of two of golf’s biggest stars. Considering their 2014 objectives, it was an auspicious start.
Of course, Mickelson enters every year bubbling with enthusiasm, effusing about his new equipment, believing that, yes, this will be his best year yet. And who knows? At age 44, with the prospect of the career grand slam looming, it just might.
But even more encouraging than Lefty’s runner-up finish or his new driver was the fact that he traveled nearly 8,500 miles, showed relatively little rust and gave himself a chance to win in the first start of arguably his most important year ever.
Supposedly, his 2014 season begins and ends at Pinehurst, where all of his U.S. Open heartache began 15 years ago. The thinking goes that it would then leave his other starts to serve as measuring sticks for his game, with one very green-jacketed exception.
If that’s true, if Mickelson’s first few months are just one big preview for the U.S. Open, it sure didn’t seem like it in Abu Dhabi.
He could have collected the fat appearance check, mailed it in for 72 holes, and headed back to San Diego for next week’s domestic debut at home. Instead, he showed his trademark resiliency, erasing a no-birdie opener to shoot 63 on Day 3, rebounding from a double-hit on 13 to post three birdies in his last five holes, showing more than enough over four days to make you believe that he’ll soon pick up a victory on the West Coast swing.
“We’re all along for the ride,” a laughing Mickelson told The National. “We’re up, we’re down. We see where it goes.”
Over the past year McIlroy’s ride has been even bumpier, which made his week even more promising. Indeed, his T-2 stands in stark contrast to a year ago, when he arrived with much fanfare, looked utterly lost with his new sticks and missed the cut in a fitting opener for the lost year.
These days, Rory is smiling again. (Well, except when he’s penalized.) The saunter has returned, as has the confidence and aggressiveness on the course.
Of course, he may have been too easygoing, which led to a crippling penalty for an improper drop on Saturday. He groused about the “stupid rules” in golf, but really he can chalk this up to a brain-dead moment. It was an obvious violation that could have been avoided.
Even after a final-round 68 he still seemed miffed by the penalty.
“I can’t describe how frustrating it is, and I feel like I’m standing here and I should be 15 under par for the tournament and winning by one. But that’s the way it goes,” he said. “I played the least shots of anyone this week. I can count it as a moral victory more than anything else.”
Now, perhaps, he has a little extra fire, but at least he doesn’t feel as though he squandered his last opportunity for a while. Dating to last October, the world No. 7 has finished 11th or better in seven of his last eight starts, including his drought-busting victory at the Australian Open.
“I feel good about my game,” he said. “I feel like I’m back to the place that I want to be.”
Rest assured, he’s not the only one who left Abu Dhabi feeling that way.