U.S. OpenJune 18, 2015

Mickelson's under par start encouraging to more than just the player

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. -- There is no cheering in the press box. The theory is, we ink-stained and pixilated scribes should cheer only for a good story. So I begin today with a pre-emptive apology for cheering in the press box, just this once, because I just want to, and because there's really only one great story in this U.S. Open, anyway. It's Phil Mickelson.

He came to Chambers Bay three weeks ago, on a Thursday and Friday. Thursday, he played the front nine all day. Friday, the back nine all day. Back home in San Diego, he told a friend that the Chambers Bay fairways were a hundred yards wide. "I can't miss em," he said. Even better, the greens reminded him of British Open greens, a fescue grass, with some poa annua.

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A man takes his optimism wherever he can find it, especially when he has finished second in the U.S. Open six times and needs to win the thing or be Sam Snead With Hair, not to mention being one trophy short of a career Grand Slam. Mickelson, who won the British Open in 2013 after repeated failures there, now uses the dramatic victory at Muirfeld (66 on Sunday, coming from five shots down) to suggest good things possible, even for a man who celebrated his 45th birthday this week.

For instance, after opening Thursday with a one-under-par 69, four shots behind the leaders, Mickelson even found something good to say about a three-putt bogey. It came at the 10th hole. You don't really want to play the 10th at Chambers Bay. It's called "High Dunes" because the fairway is threaded between giant sand dunes. Once you've found your way through that narrow gap, another dune at greenside gives the putting surface such a steep tilt that Mickelson, 30 feet from the cup, had a 50-foot putt. This takes some explaining.

For one thing, he dare not hit the putt toward the hole. It might bleed so far left, down the slope, as to wind up in Tacoma. So he looked at a target spot up the incline, 20 feet above the hole. On that line, he hoped that the putt, when it lost momentum, would turn left and trickle down near the cup. Alas, the speed was two or three rolls short of perfect. The ball came to rest 10 feet below the hole. From there, Mickelson missed the par putt.

"That was a pin that I had not spent time on, and I didn't know high up the ridge I needed to go," he said. "So I was guessing at the time . . ."

But not to worry, for even that misjudged putt reminded him of good times.

Had he, someone asked, ever had to look away from the hole and start a putt on a line 20 feet above the cup? Kinda like driving from Portland to Seattle by way of Missoula.

"In the British Opens, we have," he said. "And I think we have to equate this week to that . . ."

For a player who once had a British Open phobia -- Mickelson thought he couldn't handle the necessary bump-and-run shots -- it's telling of his current mindset that he uses the Muirfield triumph as the foundation for a good day at Chambers Bay. He's feeling confident, and that confidence was reflected in his first words to the assembled literati after his round Thursday.

"I'm very pleased," he said. "I hit a lot of good shots today. I shot under par the first day of the U.S. Open The first round was the round I was going to be most nervous at, getting started. You don't want to have to come back all the time."

Even his third shot of the day gave Mickelson reason to smile. His second on the long first hole settled in a low spot short of the green. With the sort of wedge magic we have come to expect from Mickelson in 20 years of seeing it, he caused his third to dance to a stop a foot short. No surprise, then, to hear him say, "That's the type of shot that I feel will allow me to do well here."

That, and a now-you-can-breathe putt for bogey at the 14th. Once three under par and atop the leader board, Mickelson followed the 10th-hole bogey with another at the 13th. A drive into one of Chambers Bay's vast waste bunkers left him scrambling on the 14th, so much so that he faced a 15-footer for bogey. He made it and pumped a fist to punctuate its importance.

"You're going to make bogeys, everyone is going to make bogeys," he said. "It's the doubles you want to try to avoid. To make that one, and not make any doubles, that was a big one for me."

Forgive me, dear reader, but, y'know, I liked it, too.

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