PINEHURST, N.C. – Phil Mickelson stood over his ball on his 18th green of the first day of the U.S. Open, his left hand curled around his putter in the newly-adopted "claw" form. If he sank this putt, long but makeable, he'd finish the first round under par.
In the distance, thunder purred. It was a perfect setup, the elements providing a building dramatic counterpoint. Yes, it's early, but this could be one of those defining moments, a Thursday highlight that would pay dividends Sunday afternoon.
Naturally, Phil missed the putt.
For his entire career, Mickelson has resembled nothing so much as a high-wire walker who's about to fall, and compensates by dashing toward safety as fast as possible. He's an unquestionably great player; you could make a case for him being one of the 10 greatest golfers of all time.
And yet, all too often when the spotlight is brightest, Phil somehow manages to fall off the edge of the stage. This makes him more relatable than a relentless automaton like Tiger Woods, but also infinitely more frustrating. You can't ever trust Phil with a lead, not until he's on the plane and headed home.
So while it's indeed impressive that he put aside all the distractions and pressures, both external and self-inflicted, of the past few weeks and crafted a serviceable even-par 70 to begin the U.S. Open – he's five shots back of Martin Kaymer, who shot 65 – you'll forgive us for not printing up PHIL SLAM T-shirts just yet.
Mickelson began the day with birdies on two of the first five holes, and dipped as low as 2-under to hold a share of the lead. But late bogeys, precipitated by slippery driving, didn't help the scorecard. If Phil had a real weakness, it was reading putts; while his stroke was fine, his aim was often off.
"I feel good on short putts, but I've got to make some 15, 20-footers – the ones that can go either way – to shoot a good enough number here," he said after the round. "There's not enough pins that you can go at and send that 20-footer up the hill. I've got to make some of those. I didn't make any today, but I'm going to keep working on it."
All in all, he hit nine of 14 fairways, and never caused himself significant trouble with any tee shot. Perhaps that's a function of the lack of rough at Pinehurst; the course rewards gutsy recovery, and that's pretty much Phil's forte. The what-the-hell, swing-and-see-what-happens approach doesn't always work, but it's a viable strategy here and at another comfortable location for Mickelson.
"This golf course is a course where I get a similar feeling that I get at Augusta, where I don't have to be perfect," he said. "I can miss shots. I can miss greens and still get up and down. I always have a chance. There's not the hack-it-out-rough. It is challenging. There are difficult shots, but they're manageable and hittable if you pull them off."
Please note, of course, that what Mickelson calls a "difficult shot" is what most of the rest of the civilized world would call "insane." Shots off cart paths, shots off utility cables, shots threaded through trees … it's all part of Mickelson's repertoire, and before this weekend's over it's possible we'll see all of them.
Mickelson always looks like he's a chill bro out to hustle you out of beer money on the course, but on this day he may have been playing with even more house money. The New York Times reported that he was no longer connected to part of the insider-trading investigation that had dominated headlines and discussion over the past two weeks. Naturally, Mickelson didn't speak on the issue, though he did offer an enticing hint:
"I do have a lot to say and I will say it at the right time," he said. "I've got a lot to say, I just can't say it right now."
Clearly, though, Mickelson had the support of the crowd; the gallery following him was the largest on the course. "I'm praying for you, Phil!" shouted one fan as Mickelson walked up the third fairway; he responded with a smile and a thumbs-up. He tipped his cap to every group calling out his name. And when a kid hollered for Phil to throw him a ball after his round, Mickelson replied, "Sorry. I gave them all away." ("Can you go get another one?" the undaunted kid replied, without luck.)
Despite all the close calls – six times he's been a runner-up in this championship – the 43-year-old Mickelson has what it takes to win the U.S. Open, both physically and mentally, and he knows it. "I don't know if it will be this week or next year or the year after," he said. "I do still have a hundred-percent confidence that I'll be able to break through and get one."
Perhaps we should look away and let him get to the back nine on Sunday quietly. We don't want to spook him before then.