DUBLIN, Ohio – The first time Phil Mickelson saw Muirfield Village Golf Club was as a 16-year-old. His week of excitement was ruined by a loss at the U.S. Junior Amateur.
He’s had several disappointments since at the course Jack Nicklaus built. But now he’s hoping to finally win there while ruining things for Tiger Woods.
Mickelson took a solid step toward slipping past Woods and into the No. 1 spot in the world rankings with a 5-under 67 on Thursday in the rain-hampered opening round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.
“I played here in the ’86 Junior Am and fell in love with the place,” said Mickelson, who has never finished higher than a tie for fourth in nine starts at the Memorial. “I don’t know why I haven’t been able to break through here, but I’m trying hard this week.”
Mickelson was two shots back of co-leaders Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Geoff Ogilvy. Joining him at 67 were Andres Romero, Jason Day and Rory Sabbatini.
Fowler, making a case to be the top rookie on the PGA Tour, had three birdies, an eagle and another birdie on holes 4-8 to go from 1 over to 5 under. He holed a wedge from 90 yards for a 3 at the par-5 7th.
“I didn’t see myself shooting 65 on it today,” said Fowler, making his first appearance at the course. “I saw this as being a pretty tough course. You have to drive it well and the greens are pretty tricky. So I’m pretty stoked to go out the first tournament round and put up that number.”
Ogilvie was stoked after taking the lead all by himself late in the day. But then he missed a 2 1/2 -foot par putt on his 17th hole.
Still, he couldn’t have been much happier with the way he handled the greens.
“It was nice to hole the putts,” he said after needing just 26. “If anything’s been missing in my game the last little month or two, it’s been putting.”
Rose had the second tee time of the day and had to sit out a 2-hour suspension of play due to thunderstorms.
He started with a bogey but the break didn’t prevent him from piling up eight birdies in a 12-hole span.
Muirfield Village “is a course you’ve got to play really smart on, which obviously the man who designed it was one of the best at that,” Rose said. “I actually tend to play well on Nicklaus-designed courses. And I tend to putt well here.”
In 2008, Rose tied for second, two shots back of Kenny Perry. He was fourth in his first Memorial in 2004.
Jim Furyk lead a group of six players at 68, with another former Memorial winner, K.J. Choi, among eight more at 70. In all, 48 players broke par, including Perry, a three-time winner, at 71.
Mickelson and Woods are like most of the players in the elite field, trying to win while also using the Memorial as a tuneup for the U.S. Open in two weeks at Pebble Beach. But they’re also fighting it out for the title of top golfer in the world.
To be No. 1, Mickelson needs to win this week while Woods – who has won the Memorial a record four times – finishes out of the top three.
“I’m excited to be here this week,” Mickelson said. “The course is set up perfect. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get in contention for Sunday.”
Woods shot an erratic 72, struggling off the tee while hitting just 7 of 14 fairways. The last time he played a competitive round at Muirfield, he hit every fairway while winning with a masterful, come-from-behind 65 in last year’s final round.
But Woods never really got anything going on Thursday in his return to tournament golf after missing the last three weeks due to an inflamed neck joint.
“This is my tenth round of the year,” he said. “Usually you’re like that in January. I’m there in June. I need competitive rounds.”
The sixth hole offers a snapshot of the way his day went.
Woods duck-hooked his drive into the rough above bunkers far left of the fairway on the par-4 hole. His approach to the green easily cleared the large lake in front, then soared over the green – hitting a sprinkler head and bouncing like a Super Ball over the gallery. After a free drop, his chip shot back came up short of the green. Then he chipped 10 feet past and salvaged bogey with a testy uphill putt.
He remains upbeat.
“I was encouraged at the way I was able to hit a few of the shots today which I haven’t hit all year,” he said. “I hit some shots that, it felt like it did last year. I just need to get back to that.”