TORREY PINES, Calif. — Phil Mickelson’s return home after his most improbable PGA Championship victory was vintage Phil Mickelson.
There were his signature thumbs up to the crowd, a birthday serenade, a brief snap at a fan over a ringing cell phone, a touching moment with a couple of grade schoolers, a birdie, a few bogies and some frustration that left him unsatisfied.
At 4-over, eight shots back of first-round leader Russell Henley, Mickelson is still the show. Partly because this is his hometown, partly because of his acumen with a golf club, partly because of that PGA victory a few weeks ago, but mostly because, even after all these years, he still wears his heart on his sleeve.
“Seriously?” he snapped on his fourth hole when, after twice asking for phones to be silenced, another rang for a third time.
Not 15 minutes later, he was playing Santa.
“Don’t worry,” he said to a forlorn grade schooler after he’d tossed a golf ball to the kid’s friend, “I’ll get you in a couple holes.”
It took him only one.
It was the full circle of Phil Mickelson on display in a matter of minutes — the equivalent of a sprayed tee shot at Winged Foot, followed up by a chip-in at Kiawah. Good, bad, ugly … never dull.
It’s no secret how badly he wants to win this tournament, the U.S. Open, the one major that has eluded him in his brilliant career. If he hadn’t become resigned to the reality that, after six second-place finishes, it wasn’t going to happen at this advanced stage in his career, then the rest of us had. It wasn’t even a month ago, after all, when he needed an exemption just to get into this year’s tournament, his play not qualifying him on his own.
Then he won that PGA, which not only qualified him but turned back the clock and raised expectations — maybe not that he should win this weekend, but that he at least could.
That's what made Thursday’s round disappointing, for him anyway. It’s not that he hit a lot of bad shots — he really didn’t — or that he missed a lot of putts — a few, maybe — he just never really got anything going.
He lipped out a par putt on his first hole, missed in the wrong place after snapping at the fan on his fourth (which led to a bogey), slightly misread a few par putts coming home, converted only one of his birdie opportunities and, well, that’s how he shot a 75 and didn’t look all that different than playing partner Xander Schauffele’s 69.
“I don't think my expectations have changed, but I feel like I have the confidence and ability to play well enough to get in contention,” he said after his round Thursday, “and so I guess my disappointment when I don't play to that level is a little bit greater.”
The U.S. Open has always, in some way, been a roller coaster for Mickelson. He has celebrated birthdays during this tournament, awaited the birth of his first child during this tournament, he has skipped it for a graduation, twice flown cross country and back for other graduations, it’s Father’s Day Weekend and, oh yeah, he has held a Sunday back-nine lead five times … and never won.
The challenge on Friday will be to play to those expectations he has garnered from the PGA victory, make the cut and give himself a chance.
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