CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Phil Mickelson doesn’t have to look far for motivation with the calendar turning to May.
In a season already deeper in disappointments than Mickelson is accustomed, there’s rejuvenation in the spring air over the Wells Fargo Championship.
Mickelson is practically in the shadow of Pinehurst No. 2 with the U.S. Open just six weeks away.
He played Thursday alongside Justin Rose, who beat him in the final round of the U.S. Open at Merion last year, giving Mickelson a record six second-place finishes in that championship.
Mickelson is walking a course he loves at Quail Hollow, a treasure made over this past year to make it major championship worthy as host of the 2017 PGA Championship.
There’s a crackle in the air with Mickelson looking for the spark he needs to reignite his game, and after a solid start Thursday, there’s a sense this just might be the place for him to find it.
“It was a really good round for me, a great way to start the tournament,” Mickelson said.
With a 5-under-par 67, Mickelson moved into early contention at Quail Hollow, just one shot back of Angel Cabrera.
If Mickelson, 43, is going to get some momentum going in his bid to finally win his first U.S. Open and complete the career grand slam, this is the place to do it.
“I really enjoy the golf course,” Mickelson said. “I've always loved it, tee to green. I just think it's one of the best I've seen, and it requires such great shot making, in all different directions off the tee, as well as onto the greens. The greens now are just stupendous. They match up perfectly with the beauty and the simplicity of the design.”
The U.S. Open’s shadow hangs over this portion of the season, but there wasn’t much spoken about it in the Mickelson/Rose/Lee Westwood pairing, other than queries as to who has gotten over for a practice round yet.
“I didn’t want to bring up the U.S. Open with Phil,” Rose said. “I have a lot of respect for him as a player, and I think we would all like to see him to win one. Hopefully, not when I’m in contention. Six times second, last major championship he hasn’t won, I think everyone would be happy for him if he goes ahead and wins it.”
Mickelson opened strong Thursday, carving his approach at the first hole to 2 feet and making birdie. He hit his approach at the third to 8 feet and made birdie there. He pitched to 2 feet at the seventh for another birdie and carved a half wedge to 8 feet at the eighth for yet another birdie.
“I haven't gotten off to great starts,” Mickelson said of his sluggish season. “I was trying to get a good focus, to get a good round in on Thursday, because I always feel like I'm playing from behind. So, to get off to a quick start is really a good sign, and what I needed.”
Mickelson has won in each of the last 10 years, but more than halfway through this wraparound season, he’s winless. In 10 starts this year, Mickelson has withdrawn or missed the cut in four of them. He has yet to record a top-10 finish.
A bad back hasn’t helped him. Twice this year, he WD’d because of his back, or issues related to his back.
Slow starts have troubled him most of late. Mickelson opened the Masters with a 76 in his last start and missed the cut. He has opened three of his last four starts with rounds of 74 or higher.
“It feels great to get off to a quick start,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson putted well, though he missed a 4-footer for par at the 17th, a bogey that cost him a share of the lead. After hitting his tee shot at the 18th into a fairway bunker, he showed some resolve playing out of an awkward stance. He ended up holing a 9-footer to save par and close his round.
“Hit a lot of good iron shots, and I had a couple of areas I can improve on,” Mickelson said. “My chipping was poor, at best, and my putting was unbelievable, covered up for a lot of mistakes.”
And set the table to make a run at some big prizes.