If this is his idea of rusty, it could be another special year for Phil Mickelson.
Before heading out to begin his 28th year on the PGA Tour, Lefty alerted his 250,000-plus Twitter followers that he was “excited” and “fresh” and “ready to get started,” but also, um, “rusty,” which is a golfer’s subtle way of suggesting that expectations should be lowered. Mickelson even told his playing partner, Aaron Wise, the reigning Rookie of the Year, as much before the round: “I’m rusty, so don’t expect much.”
But Mickelson has been doing the improbable for three decades now, and so maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that in his first round of 2019, at 48 years of age, with no expectations, he carded his lowest score to par in his long and decorated Tour career – a 12-under 60, to take a three-shot lead Thursday at the Desert Classic.
“It was kind of a lucky day in the sense that I did not feel sharp heading in,” Mickelson said afterward. “Sometimes it’s just one of those days when it clicks.”
Last October, at the season-opening Safeway Open, Mickelson hit it so poorly on the range that he peppered the boundary fence. It was one of his worst warmups of the year ... and yet he raced out to a 7-under 65 in the opening round. He claimed afterward that it was an “anomaly” and that we shouldn’t be fooled by the good round. “I’m not at my best,” he cautioned, and sure enough, Lefty tied for 17th in Napa. The only time he’s played competitively since was his head-to-head duel against Tiger Woods over Thanksgiving weekend, when he walked away with $9 million.
Mickelson again played down his chances in his 2019 debut, but it clicked so well at La Quinta Country Club – the easiest of the three courses in the rotation at the Desert Classic – that he gave himself a chance to break 60 for the first time in his Tour career. He went out in 30. Then he birdied Nos. 10, 11, 13 and 14. Then came the birdie on 16, and all of a sudden, he realized that he needed to birdie each of the last two holes to finally shoot golf’s magic number. On 17, he tried to hook a sand wedge into a tight pin and left himself 18 feet. He missed low, but still finished with a flourish: With a chance to card the third 60 in his career, he spun a wedge to 10 feet and buried the putt.
“It was a fun day, but I did not expect this to be the case,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t far off, but I didn’t feel like I was ready to go.”
So Mickelson tried to play more conservatively. Tried to avoid the big number. It helped, of course, that he needed only 21 putts, but it also was a reminder: Even on a day and in a tournament built for low scoring, Mickelson can still take it as deep as anyone.
The challenge now is to back it up.
If history is any indication, the winning score this week will be somewhere in the low-20s under par. That means Mickelson needs to post three more good rounds on PGA West’s more difficult courses, with a game that might not yet be ready for primetime.
“It’s very difficult to go low like this because the expectations are anything short of a victory is a failure,” he said, though he’s gone on to win after an opening 60 before, at the 2013 Phoenix Open. “It’s a tough position to be in, but one I thoroughly enjoy.”
Over the next three days, we’ll learn whether Mickelson is truly rusty, or simply being coy.