Phil Mickelson may have failed to hang on to two of his titles so far this season, but he made a sparkling start to his defence of the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta yesterday.
Mickelson equalled the course record at TPC at Sugarloaf with a nine-under-par 63, grabbing birdies at six of his first seven holes and then closing with three in five.
The left-hander could easily have set a new mark. He splashed out of sand to six feet on the long 18th, but missed the chance of what would have been his 11th birdie of the day.
Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who was seeking his fourth pro success, finished five shots further back after shooting a respectable 68.
Harrington’s eagle at the 18th had a touch of fortune about it, not just in the putt being 56 feet, but also the fact that his approach had pitched into the bank over the lake and luckily went forward onto the green rather than backwards into the water.
That was his ninth hole of the day and after bogeying the short second he then sank birdie putts of seven and eight feet on the third and sixth to move into the hunt at an event where he finished fourth two years ago and eighth in 2002.
Next week’s Masters is the big one, but Harrington commented: “I’m only thinking about the result here right now.
“There’s no point thinking about the Masters yet, especially when you’ve made a pretty decent start here.”
On-form Australian Gavin Coles had earlier lowered his lowest-ever score on the US Tour with a 64.
David Howell is also in contention for a first victory in America after a 67.
Mickelson’s start could have been even more spectacular. He missed 14-footers on the third and fourth, one for birdie and the other for eagle.
The wind was taken out of the left-hander’s sails somewhat when he three-putted the eighth, but back he came with putts of 20 and four feet on the 11th and 14th.
Like Harrington, Luke Donald missed the halfway cut at the Players Championship last week, but in his case he was suffering ’flu symptoms which he has now been told might be caused by allergies.
Because of that the winner of the Honda Classic three weeks ago took some medicine before his 7.20am start, but afterwards admitted it gave him the shakes early on.
Even so he holed from almost 45 feet at the short 11th, their second, and five more birdies followed, including a superb closing drive and seven-iron to eight feet on the difficult 472-yard ninth.
With Retief Goosen, the third member of the group, scoring 69, Donald said: “We had some momentum between us and overall it was a good round.”
Swede Henrik Stenson, third at Sawgrass on Sunday, can start turning his thoughts to his Augusta debut, however.
He double-bogeyed two of his first three holes and with a five-over-par 77 was at the rear of the field.
Coles needs a third-place finish on Sunday to win back his US Tour card, having been given a five-event medical extension following a broken rib last July.
The 37-year-old from New South Wales, who has never finished in the top six on the circuit and admitted “nobody expects me to do any good”, sank a 189-yard bunker shot for an eagle two at the 17th and also holed from 50 feet at the eighth.
Irish golfer Graeme McDowell has a disappointing round, managing a mere 73.
Collated first round scores in the USPGA Tour BellSouth Classic. TPC at Sugarloaf, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
(USA unless stated, par 72):
63 Phil Mickelson
64 Gavin Coles (Aus)
65 Charles Warren
66 Joe Durant, Ian Poulter (Gbr)
67 Brett Wetterich, David Howell (Gbr)
68 Luke Donald (Gbr), Padraig Harrington (Irl), Matt Kuchar, Mark Wilson, Shane Bertsch, Danny Ellis, Stephen Leaney (Aus)
69 Rich Beem, Retief Goosen (Rsa), Jonathan Byrd, JJ Henry, Will MacKenzie, Roger Tambellini, Wes Short, Zach Johnson, Chris Smith, Tom Byrum
70 Lee Janzen, Brett Quigley, Billy Andrade, Brent Geiberger, JB Holmes, Steve Jones, Todd Fischer, Bo Van Pelt, Paul Stankowski, Franklin Langham, BJ Staten, Dudley Hart, Brian Gay, Fredrik Jacobson (Swe), Dean Wilson, Arron Oberholser
71 John Huston, Jerry Kelly, Ryuji Imada (Jpn), Jason Bohn, Steve Flesch, Ian Leggatt (Can), Phil Tataurangi (Nzl), Bob Tway, Alex Cejka (Ger), Brian Bateman, Larry Mize, Davis Love, Jose Maria Olazabal (Spa)
72 Corey Pavin, Greg Kraft, John Rollins, Mike Sposa, Bubba Watson, Troy Matteson, Stewart Cink, Briny Baird, Donnie Hammond, Patrick Sheehan, Jeff Gove, Ron Whittaker, DA Points, John Engler, Duffy Waldorf, Paul Goydos, Scott McCarron, Sean O’Hair, Olin Browne, Steve Lowery
73 Scott Dunlap, Richard Johnson (Swe), Craig Parry (Aus), Joey Sindelar, Graeme McDowell (Irl), Omar Uresti, Jay Williamson, Daniel Chopra (Swe), Arjun Atwal (Ind), Chris Couch, Jimmy Walker, Jason Schultz, Chris Riley, Rory Sabbatini (Rsa), Jonathan Kaye, Kevin Na, Greg Chalmers (Aus)
74 Kent Jones, Justin Rose (Gbr), Heath Slocum, Billy Mayfair, Tag Ridings, Frank Lickliter, Alex Aragon, Hunter Mahan, Matthew Goggin, Doug Barron
75 Chris DiMarco, Shingo Katayama (Jpn), Sonny Skinner, Eric Axley, Hidemichi Tanaka (Jpn), David Toms
76 JL Lewis, James Driscoll
77 Henrik Stenson (Swe), Kevin Sutherland, Craig Perks (Nzl).