HUMBLE, Texas – After hitting a 262-yard 3-wood, Phil Mickelson retreated to the white tent left of the first tee. He raised his arms over his head, leaned slowly to his left and let out an audible groan.
During the first round here at the Shell Houston Open, Mickelson occasionally stretched, twisted and turned, and tried to loosen up his right oblique muscle. He did some kind of hula-hoop move in one fairway. He gave his side a few gentle massages in another. One time, he held the club in both hands, lifted it skyward and bent to both sides.
Sure, he might still be sore, but Thursday’s opening 68 was a best-case scenario.
He didn’t reinjure his oblique. He got another competitive round under his belt. And, better still, he played well, sitting just three shots off the lead at the Golf Club of Houston.
“I’m surprised,” he said, “but I feel terrific. In a matter of five days or so, it has healed up.”
After withdrawing from the Valero Texas Open on Saturday, Mickelson said he was concerned not only about this week’s event but also the Masters. He could have sat out Houston and let his pulled muscle calm down, but that decision would have derailed his big-picture plan.
“For me to have a realistic chance, or as best a chance as possible at the Masters, I’ve got to play this week and get in a better frame of mind,” he said. “I needed to play this week and really challenge myself to give myself the best chance for next week.”
Mickelson spent last weekend at home before traveling to Augusta for two days of major prep. He hit only iron shots, pitches and putts on Tuesday, then played nine holes Wednesday.
When he showed up here early Thursday morning, he relied only on his feel, his old yardage books and his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay’s notes. The lack of on-site practice apparently had little impact, as Mickelson shot his best score in his past nine rounds, and just his fifth PGA Tour round this year in the 60s.
There was plenty of intrigue surrounding how his pulled muscle would hold up, mostly because he needs to go full-bore with the big stick at Augusta. In the opening round he hit driver seven times, hard. Five of those seven drives went 300-plus, including a 328-yard bomb on 8.
Most impressive, though, was his second shot into the par-5 fourth. From 262 yards, he piped a 3-wood through the tight, narrow neck in front of the green and gave himself a 35-foot eagle try.
“Oh, baby!” he said, bounding after the shot. “Woo-hoo-hooooo! That’s Keegan Bradley stuff right there!”
Mickelson may not have been 100 percent, but that didn’t stop him from engaging in a friendly long-drive competition with Bradley, who is 16 years younger and, when he’s swinging well, absolutely mauls the ball absurd distances.
Sure enough, Bradley blew it past Mickelson by 23 yards on the next hole, and as he walked past Phil he coughed loud enough to get his attention. To be sure, a first-round 66 certainly did that, as well.
Of his former Ryder Cup partner, Bradley said: “He was striking it. He was hitting it long and great. I think he’s OK.”
So does Mickelson, which is most important. He described the discomfort as post-workout soreness as opposed to a “painful experience.”
Of course, his entire 2014 season has been painful, from the close call in Abu Dhabi to the back pain at Torrey Pines to the worst-ever West Coast swing to this most recent ailment.
For this 68, Mickelson credited a light therapy machine, which he said has made a “world of difference” in the healing process.
Apparently, because that device didn’t just allow him to play, and contend, this week in Houston; it also seems to have strengthened his Masters hopes.