OWINGS MILLS, Md. – How do you prepare for a course you’ve never played before? Well, if you’re Phil Mickelson, that preparation includes playing a layout by a similar name.
Caves Valley Golf Club, the exclusive Tom Fazio design set in the hills about a half-hour outside of downtown Baltimore, is making its PGA Tour hosting debut this week at the BMW Championship. And because of a Monday finish at the FedExCup playoff opener, many of the nearly 70 players in the field were left cramming these past two days.
Not Mickelson, though. He missed the cut at Liberty National, and then headed over to Caves Valley for an early look. That left him plenty of time to play another Valley on Wednesday.
“Yes, I went and played Pine Valley,” admitted Mickelson, who made the two-and-a-half-hour trek back up to New Jersey to get a round in on, what many consider, the consensus top golf course in the nation.
“I learn a lot when I play a golf course,” Mickelson added, still cracking a smile. “Architecturally it's brilliant, and it was very difficult, very challenging. … That's a very defensive golf course for me.”
A day later, Mickelson’s strategic mindset flipped a switch. He was rolling back into Caves Valley, sitting in the passenger seat as instructor Andrew Getson drove, when he took out his phone and, for all of Twitter to see, made a declaration: “Who is ready to ball? This guy,” he said, pointing at himself. “This guy is ready to ball. Last place. Nothing to lose. Go for broke.”
Who’s ready to ball?
👍👍 this guy 😎 pic.twitter.com/90rTJOwPrO
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) August 26, 2021
Mickelson knows he needs lots of offense this week if he’s going to keep alive his streak of making U.S. Ryder Cup teams. The 51-year-old is, as he puts it, a longshot to make Steve Stricker’s squad that will compete at Whistling Straits next month, and he is aware he needs something special at the BMW to not only impress the captain but also extend his season another week.
Which is why Thursday’s start was so important. No, he didn’t set the world on fire, but Mickelson, who at No. 70 in FedExCup points needs a top-4 finish to qualify for the Tour Championship, kept hope alive. He opened in 4-under 68 and sits four shots off the lead set by Sam Burns and Jon Rahm on an aggressively-low-scoring day.
“It's a good start,” said Mickelson, who made up for two bogeys with six birdies as he needed just 27 putts to get around. “I'm starting to hit the ball a little bit better. I'm starting to putt a little bit better. I probably left a few out there, but I've got three more days, and I didn't hurt myself any today.”
Mickelson has not missed a Ryder Cup since 1993, his second full season on Tour. He’s since played in 12 straight, most recently sneaking onto the team as a pick for the 2018 matches in Paris. Mickelson boasts a career 18-22-7 record in the biennial event, yet as a savvy veteran and future captain, his value in the team room is immense.
Yes, Stricker has some shiny new toys in potential rookie picks such as Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger and even Burns, all of whom sit ahead of Mickelson in the standings.
“But you've got to get the best golf out of them,” said Mickelson, noting the importance of team comradery, which is obviously his forte.
Earlier this year, Mickelson appeared to have given himself a solid chance to secure yet another team nod, becoming the oldest major champion by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah in May. That, of course, was until Mickelson followed with three missed cuts and six finishes outside the top 60 in seven starts.
“There are better players, there are younger players, and unless I were to win this week, or finish whatever I need to finish, like top 4 or top 5, to get into the Tour Championship, and then win there, maybe I’d deserve a pick,” Mickelson told Golfweek on Tuesday. “Other than that, I haven’t played at the level consistently week in and week out to deserve a spot.
“I had one great week at the PGA.”
Yet, there’s still time for one more. The top six U.S. players in points after this week will earn automatic spots and Stricker will announce his six captain's picks after the Tour Championship. As the last man into this limited BMW field, Mickelson knows what he needs to do to advance to East Lake – where he’s twice before won (2009, 2000).
And Thursday’s round was a nice launching point. After all, Mickelson is ranked 200th on Tour in first-round scoring average, at 72.59, ahead of just three players.
“I have not been playing the best in the first round,” Mickelson said, “and so now I'm in a decent position where if I can go play and score the way I've been playing, I should be able to shoot something in the mid- to low-60s and get right back in it.”
Those scores are certainly readily available this week at Caves Valley.
And back to the other Valley for a second. Mickelson has played the classic marvel numerous times, including the day before the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
Mickelson’s finish that week? He won.
“So,” he said, “I have some good karma there.”