With a new swing, Phil Mickelson feels good about first-round 68 at La Quinta

Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson watches his tee shot at No. 12 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday during the first round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

(Jeff Gross / Getty Images)

Phil Mickelson was confused, frustrated, basically feeling like most golfers on the planet.

He’d set up to hit a shot, visualize it, make a swing and the result was nothing like he imagined. Soft draws became wild hooks. Fades were over-sliced. And every flaw was magnified with his driver, a club that had become the most obvious obstacle to adding victories to Mickelson’s 42-win resume.

The average hack looks at a video of his own swing and doesn’t recognize himself. Just a couple of months ago, that was Mickelson.

“What I was feeling and what I was doing were so far apart that it took a real effort,” Mickelson said Thursday at La Quinta Country Club, where his newly fashioned swing made a relatively successful debut in his first PGA Tour event of the new season.

Playing relaxed and in control, with only a couple of slightly wayward shots that were balanced by twice holing out from off the green, Mickelson shot a four-under-par 68 in the first round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

The effort put Mickelson four shots off the lead of four players — Jerry Kelly, Jason Dufner, Jeff Overton and Anirban Lahiri — but it was a step in the right direction for a player who had been stumbling around in the dark.

“It’s been a lot more drastic process than I thought it would be,” Mickelson, 45, admitted.

The five-time major winner hasn’t scored a victory since the 2013 British Open — the tournament few thought he’d ever snag. Since then, he has four second-place finishes, including last year’s Masters. But he hasn’t been in the thick of tournaments often, and in early November Mickelson dropped out of the top 25 in the world rankings for the first time in 20 years.

It was about that time when Mickelson flew to Las Vegas to tell his longtime instructor, Butch Harmon, that he wanted to move on. It was not an easy decision. Under Harmon’s tutelage, Mickelson won 12 times on tour, including two majors.

Mickelson then hooked up with an under-the-radar instructor, Australian Andrew Getson, who works out of Grayhawk, Mickelson’s former home course in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“I was frustrated with the way I’ve been playing,” Mickelson said. “I knew that I had a lot higher level of golf in me, but I wasn’t doing it.”

Getson, 41, who has worked with tour pro Kevin Streelman and Bill Clinton, is not an attention-seeker. He drifted far away from the gallery while following Mickelson on Thursday, and he politely declined an interview request. Mickelson said of him, “He’s not very self-promotional. … That’s never been a part of his personality, before I met him or afterward.”

Something has seemingly clicked between them. Mickelson is now speaking intensely about the plane of his swing. He said he has altered the plane by 12 inches, taking the club back at a steeper angle while bringing it flatter into the ball.

“My swing is back on plane, and so that means that all the feel and touch and release and draws and fades will eventually come back,” Mickelson said. “Now I’m just working on touch.”

Mickelson’s drives and irons were never far off in the first round. He put himself into a bad spot only twice, leading to his only bogeys — a tough uphill lie in a fairway bunker at 14 and a position behind a tree when he hit iron off the tee on 17.

Mickelson shot 31 on the front nine with no one-putt birdies. He needed only long irons to reach two par-fives in two shots, holed out a 98-yard wedge on the eighth hole for an eagle and chipped in from 25 feet behind the green at No. 9.

“It was a really good round because it felt easy,” Mickelson said. “It didn’t feel like I was working, like I was fighting.”

The CareerBuilder first round marked the return of the PGA West Stadium Course to the former Bob Hope tournament for the first time in 29 years. Abandoned by the tour because the players considered it too difficult in 1987, it played the most difficult Thursday with a 71.82 average, followed by La Quinta (69.59) and the PGA West Nicklaus Tournament Course (69.42).

The four leaders who shot 64 were split between La Quinta and Nicklaus. Kelly, who turns 50 in November, made two eagles at La Quinta, where Lahiri, a second-year tour player from India, was bogey-free with eight birdies. Dufner, winner of the 2013 PGA Championship, drained eight birdies on the Nicklaus, and Overton, winless in 273 career starts, notched nine with a bogey. The best score on the Stadium Course was a 66 by Adam Hadwin.