AUGUSTA, Ga. – Five over through seven, Phil Mickelson stepped to the tee box of the mammoth 570-yard, uphill, par 5, eighth hole here at Augusta National and promptly sailed his tee shot into the trees.
It was all breaking bad for Mickelson. Forget defending his Masters championship, forget a third green jacket in four years, forget battling Tiger Woods on the back nine Sunday, all of a sudden Phil was wondering if he'd make the weekend.
He showed up here in great physical shape in an effort mentally to put the collapse of majors past behind him, returning to the course that suits him best. Then he went into the tank immediately.
This was no longer about beating Tiger Woods, he just wanted to get out of the woods. So he decided to set a mini goal – shoot under par from here on out and stay in this tourney. Then he made a great shot – slicing through two big pines – to set up a birdie.
Only, in truth, it wasn't such a great shot.
"I got a little lucky," he smiled after. "I was trying to get through one gap and went through another."
Sometimes lucky is what it takes. Mickelson was a mess Thursday but that mini goal was accomplished. He shot one under from the eighth hole on, enough to salvage a four over 76 and, conceivably, or at least mentally, stay in the hunt.
Not that it won't be an historical achievement if he can come back and win this thing – no one has ever won the Masters after shooting more than a 75 in the opening round.
In 1982, Craig Stadler shot a 75 and won it, the greatest recovery in history. In 1985, Curtis Strange shot an opening 80, stormed back 65 and 68 and actually led on Sunday before fading to finish in a three-way tie for second.
So for Mickelson, even if his chances are not completely dashed, things aren't all that bright, either. Not that he cared. You start five over through seven and you'll take four over at the end of the day. From that lucky shot out of the woods, through two more bogeys and then consecutive birds on 15 and 16, he gave himself at least a prayer.
"I would probably say that," Mickelson said. "I got off to a poor start. I said, 'if I can play under par from here on out I'm still in it.' I didn't want to shoot my way out of it on the first day. I don't feel that I did even though I didn't play, in any way, the way I wanted.
"If I can shoot 68 (Friday) I'm right back in there."
You have to appreciate the confidence of the guy. He was all over the course out of the tee box, he missed some putts that he usually makes and he is facing some fast greens that should only get faster and still he was talking about 68.
Which is not only a score no one other golfer managed to shoot on Thursday (Justin Rose and Brett Wetterich shot 69) but Mickelson didn't manage it in any round last year when he merely won this thing.
"The greens are hard," said Sergio Garcia, who like Mickelson slugged around to a four over 76. "It's not going to rain. Even though it is going to be cool (mid-60s), the sun is going to be out. The greens and the fairways are going to be firm. It is going to be a tough week."
Mickelson and Garcia may have shot the same but just off the 18th green they were near polar opposites emotionally. Garcia looked glum, Mickelson hopeful.
"There are some birdies out there to be had," Mickelson said. "I think (the course) set up well."
Maybe this is Mickelson's trick. Maybe this is all he had at that point. Whatever it was, he sounded serious. He wants this one badly, you can sense it. He spent the off-season lamenting the collapse at the U.S. Open and subsequent surge by Woods and dedicated himself to this weekend.
He is in, perhaps, the best physical shape of his career. He confidently is carrying two drivers. He wasn't even afraid, pre-tournament, to bait Tiger a little bit. And so when it started ugly, when he needed a wrong tree gap miracle to turn his round around, he still didn't panic, he didn't collapse.
He's got a long, long road back into contention. He's got to solve some problems in a hurry. But he didn't sound worried.
"I have a shot tomorrow," he said. "Now I've got to get back to playing good, solid golf, shoot 68 or better. Sixty-eight will get me back into the tournament going into the weekend."
Give him this much, he says it like he means it.