His first day at the 2010 United States Open was a bust. No birdies. No magic. No smiles.
So Phil Mickelson, at Pebble Beach, where it's supposed to be his story, his place, his home state, his playground of wins, showed up Friday and turned the story on its head.
He not only beat the golf course into submission with an artful 66, low round of the week in this field of the world's best golfers – "the best I've ever seen him play," said Padraig Harrington, his playing partner, "the easiest 66 you'll ever see" – Mickelson changed the terms of the game, too.
In psychology, they call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. In golf terms, it was Lefty outfoxing the U.S. Open's demons. He signed his card, then emerged from the trailer and began telling himself, and the world, that he was in the best of all possible places.
"I don't want this weekend to end," he said in his first interview for TV.
“I can't wait for tomorrow, and for Sunday, because I don't want this weekend to end," he said in his second interview for TV.
When European TV got him for their one-on-one behind the 18th green, he smiled and said: "I'm enjoying this so much. I'm enjoying Pebble Beach. I don't want this weekend to end."
And when he met the golf writers, Mickelson smiled and said: "This is the greatest place to have a U.S. Open. It's so much fun … I don't want this weekend to end."
In a week in which Ron Artest thanked his psychiatrist after a Laker NBA championship, Mickelson had to be making head doctors even happier.
Positive reinforce much, Lefty?
A U.S. Open of rough and firm greens can test the mind, make it break. A professional golf mind conditioned to birdie sprees has to adjust, to learn to love par. If the game begins to slip away, things can turn foul inside the brain. Just ask Y.E. Yang, who arrived at the 10th tee 1-under par, two shots off the lead, waking echoes of his major championship last year at Hazeltine.
Nine stunning, atrocious holes later, he had a back-nine 49, dropped 109 spots on the leaderboard and missed the cut by seven shots.
And Yang was in Mickelson's group.
Imagine the mind tricks Lefty had to play on himself to not let Yang's atomic implosion seep into his own rhythm, which was spotless.
You could almost see the thought bubble above Mickelson's head: I'm NOT going to look at Yang, I'm NOT going to look at Yang, I'm NOT going to look at Yang – hey, the ocean is pretty today! – I'm NOT going to look at Yang …
There was far more to Phil's nine-stroke improvement than the Norman Vincent Peale stuff. He called Dave Stockton – putting guru to the rich and famous – and arrived at what he called a "slight adjustment in the setup."
The slight adjustment was tested on the second hole, when Mickelson played the 502-yard beast beautifully, leaving himself a three-foot birdie putt. He would make it, and admit that even though 36 inches is a distance a U.S. Open champion should be able to traverse with his putter, the sight of the ball disappearing into the hole for a birdie gave him a jolt, a rush, a confidence he had not felt Thursday.
It was one of only 17 birdies on No. 2 all day. He was off, and the crowd sensed it.
Duly empowered, he repeated the feat on Nos. 3, 4 and 6 – to be expected, in some sense, since they played as three of the five easiest holes on the course.
What wasn't as obvious was making birdie on No. 8, that majestic par-4 that travels from the tee box on the finger of land jutting out into the mighty Pacific, up to a bluff featuring perhaps the greatest vista in golf – Carmel Bay lapping up to the white sands of Carmel Beach – to what Jack Nicklaus famously called the greatest second shot in golf, carrying a canyon of rock and beach to a sloped green.
Mickelson went 5-iron, wedge, five-footer for birdie.
By then, the fist pump was returning. It wasn't, and never has been, the Tiger fist pump, all adrenaline and fury. Mickelson's fist pump is a crisp, short, jab, and it contains a feeling of self-belief, as if the fist pump says: "Yes. This is how I play golf."
The crowds at Pebble, of course, lapped it up.
"I was so close to him," said one fan near the eighth green, sounding awed. "I could hear him talking to Bones."
Others buzzed: "Have you heard? Mickelson's 5-under through eight."
A bogey at 9 – his only hiccup, a four-footer that "waffled," he said, away from the hole – made for a front-nine 31.
The back nine was eight pars, one birdie, and importantly, he noted, "easy pars. I wasn't overstressing."
Harrington noticed. That's why he marveled, saying Mickelson "didn't miss a shot all day." The leaderboard noticed, Lefty moving up 64 spots.
Perhaps the only bit of awkwardness came after the round, when he noted that his spot near the top meant he'd tee off late – way late – on Saturday. NBC wants prime-time TV on the East Coast, after all.
Lefty wondered what he'd do. He'd practice, he said. He'd have breakfast with wife, Amy, and the kids, due in Friday night. Maybe they'd play chess, he said.
When you never want it to end, it really doesn't matter, does it?