PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – On a benign morning where the U.S. Open leaderboard was coated with red paint, Phil Mickelson let one get away.
Mickelson remains in pursuit of the final leg of the career Grand Slam, and this week that quest brings him back to a familiar venue in Pebble Beach. But the conditions he encountered Thursday morning weren’t a far cry from those he saw in February en route to a win at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, as many big names in the field feasted on a soft layout that will undoubtedly become more difficult as the week progresses.
But Mickelson was stuck in neutral, making just two birdies against three bogeys en route to a 1-over 72 that left him six shots off the early lead. He made just one putt outside of 10 feet all day, that coming on the difficult 10th where he salvaged par, and he missed a 22-inch putt on No. 3 that led to a bogey.
“There was a good opportunity to score, and I played better than I shot,” Mickelson said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to get a few shots, and I just didn’t do it.”
Mickelson had a relatively quiet lead-up to the year’s third major, eschewing a pre-tournament new conference and playing just nine holes of practice Tuesday before honing his game off-site on Wednesday. He missed the cut two weeks ago at the Memorial in his most recent start.
Mickelson has won the AT&T event five times before, including earlier this year when he chased down Paul Casey. While the layout is typically a far different test under USGA control than what players face in the winter, he’ll look to channel some of the good vibes he’s created here over the years in order to chase down a group of contenders that already includes Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy.
“I’ve played this course for so many years, and I know how to shoot under par on it,” Mickelson said. “I just need to shoot something in the 60s, and I’ll be fine for the weekend. But today I was playing well enough to do that, and I hit a lot of good putts that I didn’t make.”
Mickelson will turn 49 on Sunday, the same day he hopes to lift the trophy that has barely eluded him six times before. While he’ll need to hole a few more putts Friday afternoon to keep alive any Grand Slam hopes, Mickelson isn’t ready to throw in the towel after a slower-than-expected start.
“The good news for me is that I’m playing really well. This is the best I’ve played in a long time, certainly since the start of the year,” he said. “If I’m patient, I’ll get better as the week goes on. The goal is just to get within striking distance for Sunday.”