Merion washout, cross-country trek does nothing to stop Mickelson
ARDMORE, Pa. – Phil Mickelson has always liked to go off site to find “a quiet environment” in final preparation for a major championship. This week was a little more extreme than most.
Mickelson took one look at the weather forecast Monday and bolted suburban Philadelphia for sunny Southern California. He attended his daughter Amanda’s eighth grade graduation from the Rhoades School at 6 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday night then returned to the East Coast about four hours before his 7:11 a.m. first-round tee time.
Naturally, Mickelson went out despite zero practice rounds at Merion Golf Club this week, three-putted his first green for bogey and then shot a 3-under 67 to hold the clubhouse lead in the U.S. Open.
“This is not that out of the ordinary,” Mickelson said of a major tune-up that by normal human standards is unprecedented. “I do this about six, 10 times a year where I fly back east red eye, play some outing and then come home. So it’s not out of the ordinary.”
His Open-week disappearing act made Mickelson the main attraction on Thursday between the storms that came and went and came and went again to Merion. Even his playing partners were intrigued.
“I was as interested as anybody to see what he’d do,” said Steve Stricker, who himself has proved that being a part-time golfer can elevate your game on the big stages. “When he three-putted the first hole, I thought, ‘Here we go.’
“He’s such a competitor. He thinks he can do anything,” Stricker added. “The biggest thing with anybody out here is if you’re comfortable and confident in your decision – and he felt good about it – you can live with it. I think he expected to play well.”
Mickelson has always done things his own way, once inspiring the ad campaign slogan “What will Phil do next?” Fourteen years ago at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Mickelson insisted he would walk off the course and fly home if his wife, Amy, went into labor with Amanda, their first child. He finished runner-up (the first of five times in the U.S. Open) by one stroke and Amanda arrived the next day when he would have been in a playoff.
His family once again took priority over his golf this week. This time, Amanda had a voice in the conversation, but her father remained undaunted to hear her as one of four students selected to speak at the graduation ceremony.
“She told me that it’s fine, stay, it’s the U.S. Open, I know how much you care about it,” Mickelson said. “And I told her that I want to be there. I don’t want to miss that. I don’t want to miss her speech. I don’t want to miss her graduation. She spent nine years at that school. And she’s worked very hard and she’s I’m very proud of her.”
Amanda told a story about the accomplishments of a half dozen classmates, including one who did something to help alleviate carpal tunnel syndrome and another who owned a patent.
“In the words of the great Ron Burgundy,” she joked, “we’re kind of a big deal.”
She could say the same about her father and his ongoing quest to win his national championship. With three Masters Tournament titles and a PGA Championship to his credit, the U.S. Open is the major he covets the most. His relationship with the tournament is as yet unresolved.
“Well, if I’m able – and I believe I will – to ultimately win a U.S. Open, I would say that it’s great,” he said. “Because I will have had, let’s say, a win and five seconds. But if I never get that win, then it would be a bit heart breaking.”
Considering that, to call Mickelson’s approach to this week’s opportunity "casual" wouldn’t be an accurate assessment. He came to Merion two weeks ago and put in his usual exhaustive hours studying the course and mapping the best plan of attack. He had a few hours to study his notes on the cross-country flight back on his private jet.
The foul weather that rolled in since last Friday only extended his side trip to San Diego.
“I knew exactly how I wanted to play the golf course, given the conditions, given different wind conditions, clubs I was going to be hitting, where I was going to be and the shots that I was going to have,” he said. “What I needed was to get my game sharp, to get my touch sharp. And having a nice practice facility and nice weather for the last couple of days allowed me to do that. So it worked out great on both ends.”
So did the weather. The forecasted “Derecho” never really materialized. Thunderstorms delayed play for 3.5 hours just six holes into Mickelson’s round, allowing him a little nap. Then it cleared up and provided a big enough window to finish his round.
“This was as easy as this golf course is going to play,” he said. “We had very little wind. We had soft fairways, soft greens, and we no mud balls. So we had the best opportunity to score low.”
Mickelson (who started on No. 11) made birdies on 13, 1, 7 and 9. Plus he made great par saves on 5 and 6 to keep his charmed round going even as he was starting to “hit the wall” from the long day despite a peanut butter sandwich and energy drink caffeine boost at the turn.
“I think in the U.S. Open, par saves are as big or bigger than birdies because you don’t really expect birdies,” he said. “Those two par putts (on 5 and 6), those are the momentum builders that are important in the rounds at U.S. Open. They actually give you more of a boost than birdies do.”
Now Mickelson will get to rest at his rented home less than a mile from the course and start fresh very late in the afternoon on Friday after the other side of the draw completes its suspended first round and finishes its second.
“I was just hoping we’d get it in today because if I had to start back up (Friday) at 7 (a.m.), that would suck,” he said. “I’ll just go back tonight and rest, and I’ll have all day tomorrow to rest and it’s fine. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
When you see the world the way Phil Mickelson does, few hurdles are a problem.