Phil Mickelson has an off day with a 76 at Masters

Phil Mickelson reacts to a triple bogey on the 7th hole of the Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday during the first round of the Masters. Mickelson shot a four-over-par 76.
(Brant Sanderlin / McClatchy-Tribune)

AUGUSTA, GA. — As the shadows lengthened, so did the scowls.

The man with one of golf’s most famous smiles angrily screamed, “Are you kidding?”

The man with the gentlest of postures stiffened, turned his club upside down, and ground the grip into the turf.

On its first day in 20 years without Tiger Woods, the Masters should have embraced Phil Mickelson, his veteran presence, his star power, his three green jackets.


But as a warm Thursday afternoon became a somber early evening, the Masters once again proved it doesn’t need anybody, and turned on him.

On an Augusta National course that Mickelson earlier called a “magical place,” that magic was as black as his shirt and pinstriped pants.

During the first competitive day of what Mickelson called “my favorite week,” he endured what could be his worst Masters moment in 17 years.

Mickelson shot a four-over-par 76 — eight strokes behind leader Bill Haas — on a day that included sevens on two holes, numbers that could easily knock him out of the tournament two days early for the first time since 1997.

“It wasn’t the best day for me today,” he said afterward, shaking his head. “I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow just to make the cut. I’ve got some issues.”

With Woods gone, Mickelson entered Thursday as this tournament’s star. But besieged by some of the same nagging physical issues as Woods, he was in no shape to carry that mantle, slogging through more than four painful hours.

Guess both rivals are getting older, huh? And a first-round leaderboard whose top lines include two sons of former greats? Get used to it.

When Mickelson walked up to the 18th green early Thursday evening, the fans gave him a warm standing ovation that they did not duplicate moments later for one of his playing partners, Ernie Els. It was no surprise. Mickelson, who clinched his first major victory on that 18th green 10 years ago, is special here.

But soon enough, Mickelson missed a long birdie putt, settled for par, and the cheers were only polite as he put his head down and walked off the course. As a sign of his frustration, the usually talkative star held an abbreviated media session afterward, answering only five questions before a sadly smiling guy in a green jacket hustled him away.

“I was just off, I was really off today,” Mickelson said. “It was very disappointing.”

Before the tournament, he worried whether the backaches that had caused him to withdraw from two of nine tournaments this year — he hasn’t finished higher than 12th — would lead to early struggles. He actually admitted that, “I am nervous.”

Turns out, he should have been shaking in his spikes.

After staying level for the first six holes, Mickelson instantly collapsed with a jaw-dropping, triple bogey on the seventh hole. Water? Trees? Nope. He simply couldn’t find the right touch with his wedge, twice chipping past the hole.

“I just thought [the greens] were soft all day and I misjudged that first bounce,” he said. “I just hit them too firm, both of them.”

He rebounded to strike what is, thus far, this week’s signature putt, a long, left-to-right curling downhiller on the 10th that dropped for a birdie. But even then, when he held out his hands and shouted to the crowd in celebration, his expression was not one of confidence, but disbelief.

Four holes later he misread the greens again with a chip that led to a bogey, and then on the par-five 15th hole, which he had not bogeyed in 48 consecutive rounds, he put his third shot in the water and took a double bogey to essentially end his day in the dumps.

The most eerie part of the afternoon probably occurred after the round, when he attributed his woes not to golf, but to his physical condition and lack of consistent tournament play. For a moment there, he almost sounded like ... yeah, Tiger Woods.

“When I’m competitively sharp, those mistakes you just don’t make,” he said. “You don’t throw those shots away out there.”

Now he has one morning, 18 holes, to get those shots back. His pack of fans here would surely enjoy it. The headline writers and television cameras would surely need it. The Masters surely doesn’t care.

“I’ve got a lot off work to do,” Phil Mickelson said late Thursday, walking away from the hungry media, slipping off into the reality of those shadows.

Twitter: @billplaschke