LA QUINTA, Calif. – Phil Mickelson’s season debut was destined to be a strange one. Ambling onto the range Thursday morning at La Quinta Country Club, he greeted tournament officials, loosened up with a few swings and threw down a bucket of balls not next to Pat Perez, Tim Clark or Charles Howell III. No, he saddled up right next to Craig T. Nelson.
They small-talked for 20 minutes, lashing balls into the morning sun, and Mickelson eventually invited the 68-year-old actor not just to dinner but perhaps a golf game in L.A. next month. “I’ll get your number,” Mickelson told him, and Nelson practically floated to the first tee.
That unlikely union is part of the unique charm of this event, but the Humana Challenge is no place for an ailing golfer, what with the myriad distractions, excruciatingly long rounds, cold-topped tee shots, shanked irons and yippy putting. To survive these rounds, a pro may feel compelled to reach for something stronger than flu medication.
But Mickelson on Thursday seemed to thoroughly enjoy the intimate experience, if not his uneven play. He grinned his way through a five-hour, 21-minute round, regaling his pro-am partners with lively stories, dazzling with his short-game wizardry, confounding with mental blunders and, through it all, providing an endless stream of commentary that showed the left-hander is in good spirits (if not perfect health) entering his 22nd year as a pro.
“I was really anxious to get back (on Tour),” Mickelson said, even if his body wasn’t ready to cooperate. Last week he came down with a nasty case of the flu, and he didn’t arrive in the desert until Wednesday. Now about “95 percent” healthy, the only lingering signs of illness Thursday were a leaky nose and nasally voice, and Mickelson downplayed the effects after his round, saying, “It wasn’t anything life-threatening.”
More so than his health, however, Mickelson’s main concern now is making sure he’s around Sunday. His opening-round, even-par 72 in ideal conditions at La Quinta left him nine shots back and frustrated that his offseason work didn’t translate in his first official round of 2013.
“I know it’s there,” Mickelson said, “even though the results today were not good.”
After a pedestrian opening nine, Mickelson’ back side featured a few shots that won’t show up on the box score. On 10, he lined up on the right-hand side of the tee box and smashed a drive that cut off the right-to-left dogleg. Alas, it also brought into play the out of bounds down the left. Mickelson watched helplessly as his ball caught a tree and caromed off the cart path.
“Are you kidding me,” Mickelson hissed, and asked his caddie, Jim Mackay, for a reload.
When he arrived at his first ball, Mickelson quickly surveyed the situation – O.B. by a foot, near an artificial rock patch and a resident’s patio furniture – and angrily snatched up the ball and flipped it to Bones. After his fourth shot sailed long, Mickelson needed to make a 6-footer just to save double bogey – the same score he made there last year, during an opening 74 en route to a T-49 finish.
“That hole,” he said, “is just my nemesis.”
On the 12th tee, Mickelson pounded a 5-Hour Energy and then made one of his worst swings of the day, his ball sailing weakly to the left, behind the gallery. Of course, being 15 yards left of the green and behind two overhanging trees also afforded Mickelson an opportunity to show off his otherworldly short game, and he didn’t disappoint. He opened the blade of his 60-degree wedge and swung hard, the ball sailing above the trees, nicking nary a leaf, and dropping delicately on the edge of the green. The ball nestled to within 3 feet of the cup. Lefty grinned.
“You hit it there as much as I do, eventually you’re going to learn how to hit those shots,” he woofed.
Even more creative, perhaps, was how he handled his second shot on the 13th, after his tee shot sailed right, into the trees. His only option was to start the ball down the 14th fairway with a 5-wood and play a slinging slice.
Erik Compton, walking up the 14th, called out to Mickelson: “You got a shot?”
Lefty shrugged. Then he smirked.
Of course he did.
Mickelson found the left side of the green, about 40 feet away for eagle. (Summing up his day, he three-jacked from there and settled for a momentum-killing par.)
On 15, he yanked his tee shot right, into the gallery, and hit a spectator in the groin. But once again, Mickelson recovered with a spectacular flop shot off a tight lie that helped him salvage par.
“I was able to shake out an even-par round today,” he said. “As bad as that is, I’ve got a low round in me tomorrow, and I don’t feel like it’s far off.”
Of course, only low rounds will suffice on Friday and Saturday if he wants to extend his stay in the desert. Sixteen players shot 65 or better on Day 1, and Mickelson sits at T-122 heading into Friday’s round on the Nicklaus Course, the easiest course in the rotation.
“That,” Mickelson said, “was certainly not what I was expecting.”