Mickelson struggles with driver in 2020 debut at La Quinta

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              Phil Mickelson hits from the rough on the fourth hole during the first round of The American Express golf tournament at La Quinta Country Club Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in La Quinta, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — Phil Mickelson drove so far left on the par-4 ninth that he was in the rough behind a tree all the way across the adjacent first fairway.

While Lefty struggled off the tee Thursday at The American Express in his first round of the year, the drive through two fairways actually wasn’t a big miss because he was trying to hit into the first fairway to get a better angle to the back right pin.

“Takes the water out of play and I just have a much better angle,” said Mickelson, the 49-year-old Hall of Famer competing for the first time since early November. “I actually pushed it a little bit across and got a little bit unlucky to be behind the tree, but I ended up just chipping a little wedge underneath it and getting it on.”

He made a tap-in par there and shot a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club to fall six strokes behind leaders Zac Blair and Grayson Murray.

“I didn’t score as I probably could have or wanted to, but I really had a good day,” the first-year tournament host said. “It wasn’t quite as sharp as I wanted it to be, maybe a little bit rusty, but it was a good first day.”

Murray and Blair shot 64 in sunny and mostly calm conditions. Murray closed with a bogey on the par-4 ninth on PGA West’s Stadium Course, also the site of the final round in the pro-am event.

“I’ve been here since Dec. 30 working on the game and I feel like I probably am the most prepared of the field for all three courses,” said Murray, the 2017 Barbasol Championship winner. “Coming off of a long offseason you never expect to come out the gates like I did firing, but I’m comfortable around all three of these courses. … I love it out here in the desert.”

Blair had a bogey-free round at La Quinta.

“It was perfect today, course was in really good shape,” Blair said. “Drove it really well, made some good putts. But it’s a little easier out here this week right now than it was in Hawaii last week, so it’s nice.”

Rickie Fowler, Scottie Scheffler and Hank Lebioda shot 65. Fowler and Scheffler opened at La Quinta, while Lebioda played PGA West’s Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course.

Fowler is playing the event for the first time in six years.

“It’s a good start,” Fowler said. “Obviously, you look at scores it’s usually pretty low out here, especially when you look at weather like this and the conditions of the courses. Conditions are perfect here at La Quinta. Greens are about the best that we see all year.”

Mickelson birdied the par-5 fifth and sixth holes to get to 3 under, then gave away two strokes on the par-4 eighth when he drove left into the water and hit his third left of the green.

”I’ve been working on kind of a little low shot to get it in play and I hit it a few times today and I didn’t hit it as efficiently as I wanted to, but the miss wasn’t as bad as some of my other drives,” said Mickelson, the tournament winner in 2002 and 2004.

Lefty birdied the par-5 11th and 13th, holing out from the rough on 13 after failing to reach the green from a left bunker. He made bogey on the par-4 17th, missing a 7-footer after hitting left into a bunker, and closed with a par.

“I feel like I’m ready to go on a tear, like I’m excited to play,” Mickelson said. “Felt like 70 was the worst I could have shot. I’m going to come out tomorrow and get it going.”

Playing partner Tony Finau shot 69. At No. 15 in the world, he’s the top-ranked player in the field.

Mickelson and Finau will play the Nicklaus Tournament Course on Friday, then the adjacent Stadium Course on Saturday.

Defending champion Adam Long opened with a 69 at La Quinta.