SAN DIEGO – “Gosh, darn it, Phil.”
That was a common refrain uttered by Phil Mickelson during the first round of the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course.
One day after celebrating his 51st birthday, Mickelson got off to a sluggish start, shooting 4-over 75 in his bid to win the one major championship that has eluded him and would complete the career Grand Slam. The reigning PGA Championship winner battled hard but had a few too many loose shots that did him in.
“Two-over would have been a pretty good round and I ended up at 4,” Mickelson said, “so, I’m a little disappointed about that.”
After a 90-minute fog delay to the start of the round, the marine layer broke and sunshine bathed the fairways. Mickelson got off to an inauspicious start at No. 10, short-siding himself in the right greenside bunker after backing off his second shot to reset and his 10-foot par putt horseshoed out.
Mickelson was locked in last month at Kiawah Island en route to hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy and becoming the oldest major championship winner. That meant he didn’t require the special exemption that the USGA had extended to him and he already had accepted. His confidence was high and he spent the last two weeks at home prepping for a course where he’s won twice earlier in his career, but has struggled with ever since architect Rees Jones took a scalpel to one of Mickelson’s boyhood tracks. His former caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, suggested that Mickelson would be riding a wave of momentum into this week with a chance to put an end to his unrequited love – a record six runner-ups in the U.S. Opens – with his national championship.
“I don’t care if they’re playing on the moon,” Mackay said, “he’s going to come in feeling very bulletproof.”
But Mickelson couldn’t find his major mojo on Thursday.
At the par-5 13th hole, Mickelson found the fairway and pulled a fairway wood, trying to launch one into a greenside bunker and avoid a wedge shot for his third from a layup zone that he’s always found tricky. But his state of Zen was interrupted, not once, not twice, but three times. He backed off the shot and asked for quiet. On the third occasion, with more than a tinge of anger in his voice, he said, “Seriously, can someone help him?”
Mickelson fanned his shot left into a bush and he had to take a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie and made his second bogey of the day.
“It’s the video ding. They just kept going off,” Mickelson said. “I don’t understand why you just can’t turn that little button on the side into silent. I probably didn’t deal with it internally as well as I could have or as well as I need to. It’s part of playing the game out here at this level. Certainly, I didn’t do the best job of dealing with it.”
Phil Mickelson talks with his caddie Tim Mickelson on the 14th tee during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course. (Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
Mickelson’s tee shot at 15 was another “gosh, darn it,” moment. He pushed this one into the spinach and could barely advance his second shot 100 yards en route to a third bogey in his first five holes.
“It was covered over the top,” said Mickelson, who chopped away with a 7-wood. “It glides rather than digs, and it just pops the ball up a lot quicker, even quicker than a wedge.”
He had a chance to right the ship late on the first nine. Mickelson wedged to 8 feet at the 17th and carded his lone birdie of the day, but he had a chance to make another at the par-5 18th. Unfortunately, he took three putts from 60 feet for a demoralizing par and turned in 2 over.
Still, Mickelson kept doling out thumbs up to his faithful fans, who serenaded him with happy birthday despite the fact that they were a day late.
“They wished him a happy birthday on just about every hole, every 50 yards,” Xander Schauffele said. “I don’t know if he enjoyed that, but I’m sure he felt the love from the fans.”
He also had the support of his biggest fans – parents Phil Sr. and Mary – who yelled to son Tim, on Phil’s bag, and gave him a thumbs up.
“We’re so happy to be out here. We weren’t sure it was going to work out with COVID. It’s so much more nerve-wracking to watch at home on TV,” she said. (Phil took care of the tickets for this week.)
Mary had watched her son win the PGA at home while texting with her only daughter, Tina, who posted this classic message from Momma Mickelson: “Tina, text Philip and tell him just to par in. Don’t hit bombs or activate calves. Just pars. They will have to catch him. He won’t listen to his mother.”
When his father was stopped by a journalist on the second hole and asked if he was enjoying watching his son play, Phil Sr. said, “I’m not seeing as many good shots as I want.”
He would have to witness a few more stinkers. Phil’s tee shot at the par-3, third hole drew yet another “gosh, darn it,” as he slapped his right leg for slapping his tee shot into the front-left greenside bunker. He saved par in typical Mickelson fashion and again at the fifth, after another “gosh, darn it,” tee shot sailed left.
Mickelson was avoiding big numbers and minimizing mistakes, but then he short-sided himself at the sixth and missed a curler on the right edge and made the most painful miscue of the day at 7, where he hammered a 25-foot birdie putt 6 feet past the hole and missed the comebacker.
“To let two bogeys slide on 6 and 7 when I really shouldn’t have – like they weren’t that hard of pars – you probably saw the disappointment there,” Mickelson said.
Gosh, darn it, we did.