HOYLAKE, England – Phil Mickelson set off Thursday afternoon to defend his beloved Open Championship. He figured out how to win a claret jug last year at Muirfield, and it pained him deeply to hand the trophy over to R&A officials earlier in the week.
Although he hasn’t been playing particularly well this year, Mickelson was eager to get out and take another shot at winning a sixth major championship.
Then, suddenly, the next five hours turned into a circus. What’s odd is that most of the antics weren’t his.
Playing partner Ernie Els’ opening tee shot hit an elderly man in the jaw and drew blood. Els was so rattled that he three-putted from inside 2 feet for triple bogey on the hole, was 7 over after seven holes and ultimately shot 79.
The third member of the group, Bubba Watson, lost his temper on the 11th hole and made triple bogey. Although he said afterward that there were no issues, television cameras caught him fussing that so many people were allowed inside the ropes. Watson was distracted for the rest of the round, made bogey on the final hole and shot 76.
Meanwhile, Mickelson was trying to defend his title.
His first five holes were smooth with five pars, then he went bogey, par, birdie, birdie over the next four to get under par after the 11th hole. Bogeys on 13, 14 and 18 stalled momentum and Mickelson shot 2-over 74.
“This is the best I’ve hit it in over a year,” Mickelson proclaimed afterward. “I had as much control over the golf ball as I’ve had in a long time. Whether it was working cuts into the wind, draws into the wind, shots off the tee. Certainly the score sucks, but my game is as good as it’s been in a long time.”
The only real rollercoaster moment for Mickelson came on the final hole. His second shot into the par-5 home hole sailed short and right of the green and into a spot that is marked as on-course out of bounds.
Mickelson didn’t realize where the ball landed and walked toward it. Once he got there, he found out that it was OB and he headed back to where he originally hit his second shot. That shot, his fourth, landed short, left of the green, but he got up and down for bogey 6 after he made a 12 footer.
“Obviously I think it sucks,” Mickelson said when asked his thoughts if he likes on-course OB.
Still, Mickelson remained positive. He’s adamant that he found something during this round. He’s said for more than a month that he’s been just a fraction off with his swing. On Thursday, he insists that his swing is now on plane and results surely will follow.
“I know that this wasn’t a great score, a great start, but this is as encouraged as I’ve been since last year’s Open Championship,” he said. “I think a lot of tremendous shots today and even though the score is not reflective of it, I can feel it’s about to turn. Maybe tomorrow. It could be a week, it could be a month, but it’s going to happen soon.”