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Mickelson's short-game work pays off with 66

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HUMBLE, Texas – Hey, we’ve seen this guy before.

You know, the player who saunters around the course brimming with confidence, flashing grins and thumbs-up in equal measure. The guy who exudes comfort on and around the greens, rolling in putt after putt with ease.

Perhaps spurred into action by the calendar’s transition to April, Phil Mickelson appears ready to play some golf.

Mickelson flew into town late Wednesday, and he teed it up in the opening round of the Shell Houston Open without a practice round. Not an issue when your record over the last four years includes a win and no finish worse than T-16.

His thorough course knowledge paid dividends Thursday, as Mickelson opened with a 6-under 66 to grab a spot on the leaderboard, three shots behind Scott Piercy.

“It was a good first round, good start to the tournament,” Mickelson said. “There will be some low scores, but I’m just glad I was one of them.”

Roughly 12 hours after landing in Houston, Mickelson hit the course and quickly got to work. A chip-in birdie on No. 10 was followed by birdies on 12 and 13, and when he curled in a 20-foot putt on No. 17, his eighth hole of the day, Mickelson offered a pair of fist pumps – perhaps the first such display of emotion since last summer at Valhalla.

This was supposed to be a bounceback season for Mickelson, but thus far his results have been much of the same. Six starts have yet to yield a top-10 finish, and his runner-up at last year’s PGA Championship remains the lone bright spot across his last 30 appearances.

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But the Golf Club of Houston appears to be a cure-all for Lefty, just as it was last year when he tied for 12th. While signs of progress were evident last week at the Valero Texas Open, Mickelson struggled around the greens over the weekend and tied for 30th place.

“This is a big week for me. I felt the game was close last week,” he said. “The only thing missing was chipping and short game.”

It was a familiar refrain from Mickelson, whose short-game woes led to missed cuts earlier this year at both TPC Scottsdale and Torrey Pines, two typically Lefty-friendly venues. While most of the field was sweating through practice rounds this week in the humidity, Mickelson was back home in California grinding on his short game.

“I spent three days working on chipping, which I haven’t done in a long time,” he said.

Those efforts yielded immediate results, as his opening chip-in sparked a round that included only 26 putts. Mickelson rolled in six birdie putts, including three over 8 feet. Those makes seemed to be contagious, as his three-ball that also included Hunter Mahan and Patrick Reed combined to shoot 15 under par.

“Phil got off to a great start,” said Mahan, who shot 5-under 67. “I think when you see one or two putts go in, it definitely does help.”

With no shortage of storylines brewing for the Masters – from who will win to who will simply show up – Mickelson’s struggles have nearly made him an afterthought leading into the season’s first major. He is listed at 25/1 to win by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, higher odds than eight other players including five who are in search of their first major.

He last lifted a trophy at the Open Championship nearly two years ago, but that drought has not deterred Mickelson heading into a stretch of the season where he has so often shined. He won this event in 2011, not to mention three wins at the now-defunct BellSouth Classic in the same spot on the calendar.

While next week’s event remains a large goal, he is keenly aware that a run to a fourth green jacket begins now.

“The best way for me to give myself the best chance next week is to get into contention this week,” Mickelson said.

Just as much of the country begins to shed a winter’s worth of snow, Mickelson’s game appears to be heating up right on cue. Players often speak of trying to peak for the four majors each year, but few have been able to do so with as much success or consistency as Mickelson – especially when it comes to this particular two-week stretch.

“It’s fun to start playing well,” he said. “To feel good with the parts of the game and, you know, three more good rounds will give me momentum for next week.”

The Phil Mickelson of old was on full display Thursday, and while it remains to be seen if he can carry this form with him down Magnolia Lane, even the longest journeys begin with a single step.