ATLANTA — All eyes were on one group on Thursday. The Tiger and Rory Show rolled through East Lake Golf Club like a traveling circus, complete with squealing kids and sideshows.
Fans took sides early and stuck with their guy, at times making the pristine fairways sound more like an SEC football game than a golf tournament. The only things missing were chants of “De-Fence”
And the marquee group didn’t disappoint. Rory shot 1-under and didn’t putt very well. Tiger shot 4-under and shares the first-round lead with England’s Justin Rose, a fine early start to what will no doubt be a drama-filled weekend.
But almost lost in the hoopla was the guy playing one group ahead of Tiger and Rory: a man who was once the co-main attraction at Tiger World; a swashbuckler worthy of playing a pirate in a Disney movie, and a man who has always elicited a wealth of emotions from fans of the game.
Phil Mickelson was almost an afterthought until his name was announced on the first tee on Thursday. Then fans rose to their feet as they always do when “Lefty” walks on the stage, oozing charisma and making friends with every step.
He tipped his hat, smiled, nodded, joked with his playing partner, Nick Watney, and proceeded to push his tee shot into the left rough. From there he hit a laser iron shot and made an easy par.
That summed up Phil’s opening day.
“My irons are really, really good right now,” he said. “But I drove it poorly and I putted poorly. The thing is, I only hit one really bad putt today on 7, but I misread a lot of them. I’ll have to get that fixed for tomorrow. I’m at least hitting them on my line, but I’m not always hitting them on the right read.”
The fact that he is 1-under is not surprising. What is surprising is the fact that nobody is counting him out.
Leaner and longer than he has been in a dozen years, Mickelson looks and feels better than ever. And even though he didn’t make many putts on Thursday, the new claw grip has given him renewed confidence that he can still make a run at his old nemesis Tiger and young guns like Rory, even at age 42.
“I feel like I’m stronger and more flexible than I’ve ever been,” Phil said. “I’m certainly at a lighter weight than I’ve been in a long time and I’ve been able to practice and work on my game and not have any ill effects. I’ve been working hard on core strength and seeing a back specialist to make sure I don’t have any back problems. As a result, my back feels better than it has in years. So things feel really good.”
Phil isn’t ready to be a sentimental favorite. He wants to be a favorite.
“I’ve been worried with arthritis that I didn’t want it to affect my career,” Phil said. “I’ve had medication that has been very effective for me. But I can take some weight off and take some pressure off my joints, if I can eat healthier and make sure my blood-work is good, stay flexible and work out, I don’t see any reason why I can’t continue my career without any obstruction.”
A lot has been said about Mickelson over the years – much good and a great deal that deserves to be dispelled.
No, the guy is not a phony. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but in 20 years of following the PGA Tour, I’ve never seen him be unnecessarily rude and I’ve watched him sign more autographs than his top-50 competitors combined.
I’ve also seen him be unfailingly loyal, and not just to his caddy, Jim “Bones” MacKay, who has been with him since his first day as a professional, an unheard-of tenure for a golfer and his chief assistant.
His old college coach has been his agent since day one. T.R. Reinman, who covered Phil from the time he was playing junior golf, was brought on as his communications specialist.
He remembers names and faces and family members, and he will go out of his way to speak instead of looking the other way.
The man will say “no” occasionally, but not often and almost always with a polite apology.
A phony will eventually reveal himself. But 20 years later, Phil is the same person he was when he first stepped on the stage.
That’s why fans continue to love him. And why, if he continues to strike his irons as well as he did on Thursday, they might have a lot to cheer for at the end of this week.