PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Phil Mickelson is golf’s ultimate roller coaster. For better or worse, he’s always spectacular, especially in major championships. With nearly every round there are ups, downs and everything in between.
Think of this year’s Masters when he smashed a 6-iron off the pine straw from 207 yards on the 13th hole to setup an eagle try that ultimately ended in a crucial birdie. Think 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot where Mickelson’s gambling, go-for-broke style down the stretch cost him a shot at winning his third consecutive major.
That’s what’s so perplexing about Mickelson’s opening round here at the 110th U.S. Open. It included none of the above. In fact, the most exciting thing to happen during Mickelson’s round didn’t even happen to him or playing partners Padraig Harrington and Y.E. Yang.
Mickelson, who turned 40 on Wednesday, began on the 10th hole and made six pars before making bogey on Nos. 16, 17 and 18. Lefty played cautiously off the tee on No. 16 but his drive was inches from finding the fairway bunker and his awkward, sidehill position forced him to hit out sideways and back into the fairway. On the picturesque par-3 17th, his tee shot found water left and he got up and down for a bogey 4. Then on the closing hole he tried to reach the green in two shots from 252 yards, but started the ball left of the green and it never hooked. The result was another water ball and a third consecutive bogey.
The final hiccup came on the fourth hole when, again, Mickelson was being cautious off the tee. Still, he found a bunker, then hit his second shot into another bunker and failed to get up and down.
Overall, Mickelson missed six putts from 10 feet or less, five of which were birdie looks. The score was the second-highest opening round for Mickelson at the U.S. Open since 1997 when he opened with 75 at Congressional. It was the first time Mickelson failed to make a birdie in a round since the first round of the Shell Houston open last year, a span of 24 events and 95 rounds.
“I usually find a way to make some birdies,” Mickelson said with his trademark sheepish grin. “But I had my opportunities. I mean I had a number of chances. There were a number of birdie holes out there and I had my opportunities, I just didn't make the putt.”
Mickelson shot the worst round of his group. Yang was 4 over at one point but scrambled to shoot 73. Harrington had difficulty finding fairways all afternoon but made two late birdies to salvage his round and shoot 73.
“I felt like scoring should’ve been a lot better,” Harrington said. “The greens weren’t firm, they were quite receptive. But I had to work. Scoring would be better if this wasn’t called the U.S. Open.”
The most interesting moment of the day came on No. 16 when Harrington was behind the green standing over a chip shot. Moments before he was to hit the shot a golf ball came flying from over the right grandstands, took a hard bounce out of the rough and onto the green, ending 6 feet from the hole. The ball came from 23-year-old, U.S. Open rookie Jon Curran, who blew his drive well left off the third tee. Curran took a drop off the front of the 16th green, hit his approach to the left fringe and got down in two shots for par.
There was a Phil moment waiting to happen on the third hole but it never developed. Mickelson blew his tee shot well left and, although it was several feet from a nasty hazard and behind a grandstand on the 17th tee, he still had an angle at the green with a wedge in his hand.
The vibe in the gallery was exciting. Collectively you could tell that people were expecting Lefty to make a birdie from the junk and get his round ignited. He delivered on the first part when he stuck his wedge shot to 10 feet as applause erupted. But, as was the case all day, the short stick cost him and he missed the birdie attempt.
“Obviously I didn't score well, but I thought I played pretty well, other than putting,” Mickelson said. “I just putted horrific. It's very frustrating for me to miss all those opportunities. I don't mind making a bad swing here, there, making a bogey here, there, it's part of the U.S. Open.
“It's just I've got to make birdies. It just was very frustrating for me.”
On a day with near perfect conditions, Mickelson was mostly conservative, hitting driver off the tee only five times on a course that isn’t long by today’s standards. But, since the round did not result in a good score you have to wonder if Lefty’s aggressive nature will get the best of him at some point. If playing conservatively didn’t work, perhaps playing more aggressively will.
“It's just frustrating because I came in here prepared,” Mickelson said. “I came in here ready. I hit a lot of good shots today. I gave myself a lot of birdie opportunities and putted terrible.”
Bad news is he shot 75, good news is that he didn’t shoot himself out of the championship. For at least one round in this U.S. Open, however, the roller coaster that is Phil Mickelson was derailed.