Phil Mickelson plays into the night to iron out flaws

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

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Phil Mickelson reacts to his putt on the 17th green during Round 1 of the PGA Championship. (USAT Sports)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – This was a Phil Mickelson you almost never see.

The happy swashbuckler who greets everyone with a grin after every round wordlessly hurried through a throng of reporters and well-wishers and sprinted up the stairs of a bridge. He lifted up his cap and pushed his hand through his hair as he went, nervously walking toward a nearly vacant driving range. The press would have to wait. The autographs would have to wait.

Lefty was in shock.

For more than 30 minutes he stayed out there on the range at Oak Hill, ironing out the flaws of a 1-over 71 that left him six strokes back after Round 1 of the PGA Championship. Daylight vanished, a light rain came, course attendants pulled the placards lined up behind him, swing coach Butch Harmon came and loosened his tie, and still Mickelson fired shot after shot into the darkness.

The rain got heavier, his shirt clinging to him, and still he blasted those iron shots and watched to make sure each one landed where he wanted. He hunched over, he put a hand on his left hip, he twisted and stretched, he lined up two wedges to train his stance. But most of all he stared straight into the ground.

What happened out there?

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Phil Mickelson practices on the range after shooting a 1-over 71. (Yahoo! Sports)

Mickelson would seem to be the least troubled golfer on the planet. He nearly won the U.S. Open with four days of beautiful play. He shot one of the best final rounds in history in Scotland, winning the Open Championship and his first Claret Jug. He's said again and again how he's playing the best golf of his life, at age 43.

And yet on this first-round Thursday at the PGA Championship, Mickelson was fighting with a game he did not recognize.

He fell to 3-over after four holes, including an unsightly 7 on a birdie hole, and all the ease of the summer had somehow evaporated. He also lost a shot out of bounds.

"The first four holes," he said, "was like a shock to my system."

Play was suspended due to weather, and Mickelson summoned Harmon to the range. That was about as rare as the post-round practice session.

He fought to bring his score back to even par, and then to 1-under, and to the rest of the world it looked like more Mickelson magic. To him, though, well, he couldn't quite understand why something felt off.

[Related: Phil Mickelson goes casual before first round of PGA]

And it was way off on the final hole. He yanked his last drive way left of the 18th fairway, all but guaranteeing himself a bogey or worse.

Mickelson strode quickly to the rope line and ducked under. He was greeted by fans who swarmed him like family. "Big trees here in Rochester, Phil!" one yelled. People laughed and sipped their Genesee beer.

He had a narrow path to the pin, under a long ceiling of low-slung branches. The rational play was to chip out, but he looked that direction and shook his head no. He was going for it. He took out a nine-iron, glanced up at a tiny gap in the trees, and the crowd went silent. Was he really doing this?

His shot screamed into the brush, but too high. THWACK. The ball dropped straight down. A 12-year-old boy from Massachusetts smiled as all this happened right in front of him, but Mickelson was quickly addressing the ball again.

"Yardage, please!" he yelled.

Silence.

"Never mind, I don't need the yardage."

He chipped out into the fairway, and fans wondered aloud why he didn't do that the first time. He would later reason that he'd have to go backwards out of the forest to go forward to the green. He ended up going backwards on the scorecard.

Mickelson finished the hole with a double bogey to fall to 1-over on the day – six shots back of leaders Adam Scott and Jim Furyk. After he putted out, he stood off the green and looked down at the ground while his partners readied to finish.

[Related: Adam Scott, Jim Furyk take early lead at Oak Hill | Photos]

And then he was off to the range, needing some answers. He emptied one bucket and started on another. Finally he told Harmon, "I see it now." He would explain that he was "working on the exact opposite of what I needed to do." He replaced his iron in his bag and got out his driver, which he had hardly used on Thursday and would hardly need for the rest of the tournament. This didn't seem to be about the PGA Championship at all. This was about making sure something dramatic hadn't changed.

It was raining hard now, and still Mickelson worked, replacing his driver and bringing out a fairway wood. Still not done. Still not sure.

It was 8:15 when Mickelson put the last club away, took a deep breath, and said, "OK." He faced the press as he always does. Then he signed autographs as he always does.

"Even when I was making birdies," he said, "it still didn't feel great." Asked if he was worried about his game, he quipped: "Not now, but I was."

Yet there was still a sense of hurry. Mickelson seemed to want to get to Friday, if only to make sure everything was OK. "Tomorrow will be the big day for me," he said.

It's hard to say a second round that may mean nothing on the leaderboard could mean so much in a man's career, but yes, it feels that way now.

Phil Mickelson spent the summer finding his best game. On Thursday, for a few hours, he stared headlong into the fear that he'd lost it again.

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