Mickelson drives on regardless to keep Tiger at bay

PHIL MICKELSON yesterday gave a graphic demonstration of just how far the top golfers are hitting the ball these days.

He didn’t carry a driver in his bag on the opening day of the US Open simply because he felt he didn’t need one on a course measuring more than 7,600 yards! The local boy only holed one meaningful putt, a 25 footer for birdie on the 10th, one of his four gains on the homeward run, and still matched the par of 71. He finished one ahead of his playing partner and championship favourite Tiger Woods, to make a satisfactory start in an event he has yet to win.

The infamous “June Gloom” of the early morning quickly gave way to glorious sunshine for most of the day but the wind got up appreciably in the afternoon to make things a lot more demanding for the later starters, who included the reigning US and British Open champions Angel Cabrera and Pádraig Harrington.

More than 42,000 colourfully clad and wildly excited fans — this is the first time the championship has ever been staged in Southern California — turned up with just one thought in mind. They were there to feast their eyes on the confrontation between two of their own, Woods and Mickelson, and pre-tournament predictions that it would be like a zoo out there weren’t far off the mark. Even though Mickelson understandably commanded most of the support, Woods wasn’t complaining except to comment that: “I have never seen so many people inside the ropes, there must have been a hundred or more.”

The fans got just what they wanted from their heroes, a series of wonderful golf shots combined with one or two that would bring blushes to the faces of an 18 handicapper. An example of the former was the 209 yards five iron that Woods drilled from a fairway bunker to less than a yard for a birdie at the dramatic, clifftop 4th, while Mickelson proved that even the second best player in the world can look like a duffer when he moved an attempted recovery from rough at the 13th by no more than a few yards.

It was thrilling stuff and made for a cracking atmosphere. Woods got off to the worst possible start by running up a double bogey at the 1st where he pulled his tee shot and after chipping out, pitched over the back and was unable to get down from there in chip and putt. It looked as if Jack Nicklaus’s forecast that Tiger would struggle after his long lay-off was about to be justified.

“You’ve got to prepare yourself for the US Open,” said the Golden Bear, “You just don’t walk in after being out for two months and claim ‘I can handle this.’ You wouldn’t have any college student take an exam without studying for it.”

However, Woods wasn’t for listening — or panicking. The birdie at number four put him back on track and two more followed at the short 8th and long 9th, where he did superbly well to get up and down from thick rough to the left of the green. Now one under par, and just where he wanted to be at that stage of the tournament, Woods had to rely on his putter to rescue him at the 12th, where he struck a spectator with his drive and again with his second, and at the 13th after “air mailing” the green with a wedge.

Putts of 20 and 15 feet seemed to have steadied the ship but there was no salvation when he tangled once again with a bunker and some fearsome US Open style rough at the 14th. A double bogey six, Woods’s second of the day, was the outcome and now he was back to one over, the same as Mickelson, who was fighting back from three over with back-to-back birdies at 13 and 14.

They were still locked together arriving at the “risk and reward” 573-yard 18th which both played impeccably from tee to green. Woods was home with a drive and seven iron but after leaving his eagle putt eight feet short, he pulled the next and so had to settle for one over. Mickelson made no such mistake and so “won” the first round of this personal confrontation by a stroke, 71 to 72.

Not that Woods was concerned. Apparently reluctant to discuss how his newly constructed knee had stood up to the test except to quip that he had been “able to walk 18 holes”, he instead stressed that after “two double bogeys and a three putt, I’m in a great position. Everybody is going to make mistakes out there and I made my share. I was playing a six and seven iron to the two par fives on the back nine and didn’t make birdie at either. But I can clean that up tomorrow.”

No doubt he will, but for now the top of the leaderboard bears something of an unreal appearance. Leading the way on three under 68 is Justin Hicks, a 33 year-old qualifier from Michigan. He plays the mini tours in Florida with no great success but cheekily attempted to make light of this considerable achievement.

“You just approach it with the right mindset and stay patient, and like any other course, just try to hit fairways and greens and make as many putts as you can”, he said. “Who am I? I’m another one of the guys trying to earn his Tour card and play in front of the cameras and the media and all that.”

Not a whole lot has been heard in the past few years of Rocco Mediate, now 45, but he cruised round in 69, two under along with the Australian Stuart Appleby. But another Aussie, Adam Scott, who was drawn with Woods and Mickelson, settled for 73.

Europe hasn’t produced a US Open champion in 38 years. Leading the effort to end the drought are Sweden’s Robert Karlsson and Lee Westwood of England, both around in 70. Oliver Wilson, with six second place finishes on the European Tour this year, was two under for much of his day before settling for 72 but the misery of 2006 winner Michael Campbell goes on as he stumbled to a seven over 78.


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