By Jeff Babineau, Golfweek
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods aren’t likely texting buddies, but if they were, Thursday night’s electronic missive from Mickelson to the world No. 1 might go something like this:
@ClaretJug13 to @TDub14Majors: Hey, sorry about the way your round finished today, slipping out of red numbers with that unfortunate double bogey. Don’t worry, though. I know exactly how you feel. Exactly.
OK, so he isn’t called Phil the Thrill for nothing, right? Lose a heartbreaker on Sunday at the U.S. Open, bounce back with the round of your life to win the storied jug at Muirfield. Phil's opening effort in the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill? Gee, you know, the normal stuff, with more twists than a Stephen King plot. It was your regular edge-of-the-seat-what’s-next page-turner. Golf’s human EKG chart was dipping and spiking with aplomb.
Mickelson stood on the fifth tee at 3 over par, not exactly the start he was seeking. He’d belted one ball out of bounds at the par-5 fourth, and very nearly added a second. But to his credit, without his best stuff, he fought. And fought. And then fought some more.
After all, if Mickelson were to shoot 1-over 71 (which he did) and did so with 17 pars and a bogey, it just wouldn’t be nearly as fun, would it?
“Not even close,” said his wife, Amy, flashing that radiant smile of hers after the round.
But for all the work he did to climb back into the round, even getting to red numbers with a 6-footer for birdie at the 323-yard 14th, the work all came undone at the closing par-4 18th, which Thursday played at a stout 496 yards.
Competing sans driver for the third consecutive major, Mickelson flailed a weak 3-wood left, into the trees, then took a route with his second shot that only he and David Copperfield might attempt. He eyed a high, small opening in the trees, at a place that has so many of them announcer David Feherty said they easily could film “The Hobbit.”
The stark result of his mighty lash with a 9-iron was his ball rattling around the branches of a tall, sturdy oak, and from there all he could do was chip out down the fairway, wedge on, and try to make 5. That plan went for naught, though, when his 18-footer for bogey slid past the hole.
An under-par round suddenly slipped to 1 over, and Mickelson was not too pleased about the result.
He headed directly to the range, summoned his alignment sticks and began swinging away. Shortly afterward, caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay approached the Sky Television tower left of the driving range and requested a visit from the sharply-dressed man on the other side of the glass – one Butch Harmon.
Beginning the second round six shots off the leading pace – matching 65s by Jim Furyk and a man playing alongside Mickelson, the uber-talented Adam Scott – certainly was not where Mickelson wanted to be.
“You need to get off to a good start that first round so you're not playing catch-up all the time,” he said, “which is why I've been successful the last two Open Championships (this summer’s U.S. and British). I played good the first two rounds and didn't have to press the issue.
“Now I've got to come out hot tomorrow and get a little more aggressive and attack and try to shoot something in the mid-to-low 60s to get back in it for the weekend.”
It’s certainly possible, though the double at 18 reminded of another rough tournament finish in this state. For sure, it was Winged Foot-esque. Tee shot left, overly aggressive with the second, finally a safer play, and then no up-and-down for 5. The first time he did that, some seven-plus years ago, cost him dearly; he hopes this episode does not.
Mainly, it dampened an effort that showed a great deal of grit, as Mickelson got back into the round with four birdies in six holes starting at No. 9. But even in the good times, things never did feel quite right.
“I just fought hard,” he said. “Even when I was making birdies, it didn't feel good. I was just trying to fight and keep it in play. I hit some good tee shots, but it didn't feel great.”
It had been a highly charged walk in the park for Mickelson, who is a fan favorite everywhere, but even more so in New York. His popular Open Championship triumph was saluted as he walked down each fairway, and he, Scott and Justin Rose were delivering a pretty good show. Playing in the PGA’s traditional threesome that puts the first three major winners of the season inside a marquee group, they did not disappoint, at one point all showing up in red numbers (Rose would shoot 2-under 68).
“It’s the best group of the year to be in,” said Scott, who opened this major season by capturing the Masters. “Playing with Phil, it’s an incredible atmosphere, every single moment out there. I thoroughly enjoyed that.”
Unfortunately, walking off the 18th green, Mickelson could not say the same for his round. He said he’ll need something low teeing off early Friday to get himself back into the mix.
“I can get back in it, but it could have really gotten away,” he said.
He then was asked, Are you worried about your game?
“Not now,” he said after his work with Harmon. “I was.”