TROON, Scotland – It only makes sense that on a day that felt more SoCal than Scottish summer a kid from San Diego would bask in the sunshine and take his swing at major immortality, all shirtsleeves and smiles.
Under a bright, warm sun and with hardly a breath of wind Phil Mickelson played the opening round of this Open like it was a casual round at Torrey Pines, although to be perfectly accurate Lefty has appeared much more at ease on the ancient links than he has ata the SoCal muni in recent years.
The wildly unpredictable southpaw was curiously consistent on Day 1, playing what he called an “easy” round on Royal Troon all the way to the final green and the precipice of Grand Slam history.
From 16 feet Mickelson watched his birdie putt track toward the hole at the last. He’d seen it in his mind’s eye, trundling toward the cup and vanishing in a moment of adrenaline and disbelief as Lefty – the often snake-bitten but never boring hero, both tragic and otherwise – became the first player in the history of major championships to sign for a 62.
There have been 437 modern majors played and yet golf’s magic number has eluded all – from Nicklaus to Woods. Although Mickelson prides himself on clinging to clichés, you know the drill: one shot at a time. As he made his way toward Royal Troon’s 18th green, toward history, Mickelson allowed himself a moment of self-indulgent excitement.
“I said [to caddie Jim Mackay], ‘I need your best read. I don't know if you know this ...’” he said with his boyish smile. “He says, ‘Oh, I know.’ So, we’re on the same page.”
Ernie Els, who was paired with Mickelson on Day 1, putted first in order to give Lefty a chance to see the line. Mickelson and Mackay consulted, “breaking left in the middle of the putt and then straight the last bit,” they agreed.
The crowd, healthy even by Open standards for a Thursday afternoon, watched quietly, and Lefty rocked and fired, the putt perfectly paced.
“With a foot to go I thought I had done it. I saw that ball rolling right in the center,” he said. “I went to go get it, I had that surge of adrenaline that I had just shot 62, and then . . .”
And then the putt lipped out.
Maybe it was the golf gods or some unspecified curse or a pebble or spike mark.
“I had the heartbreak that I didn't see and watched that ball lip out,” he allowed.
Mickelson finished the day with an 8-under 63, just his third bogey-free round in The Open, which was good for a three-stroke lead over Patrick Reed and Martin Kaymer.
He became the ninth player to shoot a 63 in The Open and the first to do so at Royal Troon.
He didn’t care about any of that.
“I shot one of the most incredible rounds and feel like crying,” Mickelson said moments after signing his scorecard.
It all seemed so cosmically apropos for a player who once lipped out for 59 at the 2013 Waste Management Phoenix Open. He’s inexplicably never won a PGA Tour money title, never been No. 1 in the world, never hoisted the FedEx Cup.
His career, his legacy, has been forged in majors, and to become the first player to shoot 62 under the most difficult conditions would have been a seminal moment.
“The way he played out there today, it's amazing he's only won one Open,” Els said. “It was beautifully played. Just a pity, I don't know how that putt didn't go in on 18. That would have been something. That was a great, great round.”
Mickelson began his run with an outward 32, which given Thursday’s benign conditions and the relative ease of Royal Troon’s opening nine was not an outright surprise.
But then he added birdies at the 10th hole, managed to save par at the demanding 11th and took the outright lead with a birdie at the 14th hole.
He ripped a “salty” bunker shot to 12 feet at No. 16 for birdie and when he converted for another at the par-3 17th hole, visions of 62 began drifting through Mickelson’s mind.
“When that putt [at No. 17] went in, then I knew I had a chance,” said Mickelson, who closed with a 66 on Sunday at the Scottish Open to tie for 13th place.
While form and fearlessness have a tendency to go hand in hand, that doesn’t entirely explain how a player who is winless on the PGA Tour since 2013 could turn back the clock so convincingly.
There was nothing in Lefty’s permanent record to suggest he’d pick apart the ancient links with such ease. He opened with a 73 in 2004 and tied for 24th in 1997 at the last two Royal Troon Opens. But those turns were well before he solved the links riddle with his victory at Muirfield in 2013.
Prior to that Scottish fortnight, which included a victory the week before at the Scottish Open, Mickelson had just two top-10 finishes in 17 Open starts.
Thursday’s unseasonably kind weather certainly gave Phil and the rest of the field plenty of reasons to be bold. For the day, Royal Troon buckled under sunny skies with more than 50 sub-par rounds.
Colin Montgomerie, Troon’s prodigal son having grown up on the seaside links, figured Thursday’s conditions were a “3 out of 10 job,” compared to what’s forecast for Friday, “tomorrow, we're talking 7, 8 out of 10.”
Even fresh from the sting of his missed opportunity, Mickelson, who has been chased away from the claret jug on more than one occasion by Mother Nature, sensed the storm that promised to follow the calm.
“We'll have varying conditions tomorrow. It's going to be very difficult,” Mickelson said. “A good number might be over par.”
At 46 years old Mickelson isn’t much interested in sentimental victories, particularly after another disappointing U.S. Open last month where he missed the cut a week after finishing runner-up in Memphis.
At this point in the proceedings, Mickelson has made no secret of his priorities. Adding to his total of 42 Tour tilts would be nice, but his focus is on the four weeks a year that define careers.
Becoming the player to end the 62 curse would have ranked alongside those major goals, and he conceded it will take some time to get over Thursday, but then the thrill of the chase has always been the best part for Lefty.
“It was fun,” smiled Mickelson’s longtime manager Steve Loy.
Mickelson always is.