UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Phil Mickelson poured in his fourth birdie on the 11th, taking that giant step toward the hole as he pumped his left fist. His name was atop the leaderboard Thursday at the U.S. Open, and it looked as though he wasn’t going anywhere.
Curiously, the guy known for taking chances decided to play it safe on the reachable par-4 12th hole. He had to settle for par, followed with back-to-back bogeys and never regained any momentum. Mickelson wound up with a 1-under 69, not the score he wanted for as well as he hit the ball.
He was four shots out of the lead, and that didn’t bother him at all.
“I shot under par the first day of the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “The first round was the round I was going to be most nervous at, getting started. You don’t want to have to fight to come back all the time. You want to get off to a solid start around par. And I got off to a good start and shot 1 under.”
Based on the way he played Chambers Bay in the opening round, he could be headed for another chance — or more heartache — at the only major he hasn’t won.
He showed from the start this might be another good week.
From some 60 yards below the first green after a poor approach, Mickelson hit a lofted wedge with so much spin that the ball landed and checked immediately next to the cup for a tap-in par. Mickelson made four birdies and he missed three chances inside 10 feet on the front nine alone.
But it was the 12th hole, playing 317 yards up the hill, that slowed him.
The pin was in the back left side of the green, beyond a sharp ridge, and Lefty felt it would be tough for him to hit driver back there.
“I was going to be on the low section with a very difficult putt,” he said. “I felt I could get a wedge every bit as close as I could a putt from the front of the green. And I also felt at 3 under, I don’t have to have one hole ruin my round. If I hit one bad drive and go in the junk and I make a 5 or a 6, it just hurts the round. I didn’t want one hole to come up and bite me.”
Mickelson made bogey from a bunker on 13, and twice went into the bunker on the 14th hole. He had to make a 10-foot putt to escape with bogey, and then he had to settle for pars over the final four holes.
He had few complaints about his game or the course. His only reservation was the inconsistent speed of the greens.
“I thought it played as we expected,” he said. “I thought there was nothing hokey or crazy with any pin positions or how it played. I thought it was difficult. I think the biggest challenge is that the green speeds are different from green to green. That’s going to wreak havoc on our touch. And that’s the only thing I could possibly think of that is not really positive, because I think it’s been very well done.”
Most troublesome were the downhill putts. Mickelson said it was difficult for a putt to hold its line with that kind of speed.
“But uphill, they seem to hold the line just fine,” he said. “I might have to factor that in how I play some shots now, because I think the percentage of made putts uphill from 3 to 9 feet is going to be quite a bit higher than downhill.”