Phil Mickelson had no problem launching his tee shots into orbit Thursday in the opening round of the American Express golf tournament. Calculating where they were going to land was a bit more problematic.
Mickelson has talked at length about the conditioning and equipment tweaking he’s done in the offseason, the effort he’s made to get stronger, longer and more consistent off the tee. Fortunately for the tournament host of the 61st edition of this PGA Tour event in the California desert, the short game that has amazed fans for almost three decades mostly overcame those wayward tee shots.
Mickelson saved par or made birdie by getting up and down 10 times, including three times from bunkers at La Quinta Country Club, to stay alive in a tournament he won in 2002 and 2004. Despite managing to hit barely a third of the fairways, he fashioned a two-under-par 70 that, if not prominent on the leaderboard, at least hasn’t put him out of contention.
He is six shots off the lead, but in a tournament where birdies and even eagles are bought in bulk at bargain prices, that’s not an insurmountable deficit.
“I didn’t play great today but still had a decent score,” Mickelson, 49, said. “I feel like I’m ready to go on a tear.”
As is always the case in this tournament spread over the Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses at PGA West and nearby La Quinta Country Club, there was a robust roster of players who went on a tear in Round 1.
Zac Blair, looking for his first victory in his 130th PGA Tour event, and Grayson Murray, who has made the cut in only one of five events this season, each shot eight-under 64, Blair at La Quinta and Murray at the Stadium Course, which will be used for Sunday’s final round.
Rickie Fowler, making only his third start in this tournament and playing at La Quinta, is at seven under, along with Hank Lebioda (Nicklaus) and Scottie Scheffler (La Quinta), both of whom played bogey-free golf.
Fowler, who missed the cut here in 2010 and tied for 33rd in 2014, strung together five consecutive birdies to close out his front nine, then added two more in the next four holes to vault up the leaderboard.
“Obviously you can always look at a round of golf and it could be better, but I’m happy with the start today,” he said.
Eight more players are one behind that group at six under, and 35 are within three shots of the leaders. In a field of 156, 73 shot under 70, which means the field hasn’t been narrowed an awful lot.
Defending champion Adam Long birdied two of his final three holes at La Quinta to finish at 69.
Early in Mickelson’s round, it appeared that he might also be one of those players to go low. He got to three under with his third birdie in four holes on the par-five fifth hole. A double bogey stalled him on the par-four eighth after he pushed his tee shot into the water.
Still, he averaged an impressive 331 yards in driving distance, third in the field, though sometimes it seemed he was nearly that far off line. His accuracy percentage off the tee, hitting only five of 14 fairways, was tied for 141st in the field.
On the 399-yard par-four ninth hole, Mickelson took a “Phil being Phil” route that he believed offered a better approach toward the green and avoided water along the right side. Aiming for the first fairway, he lofted a high cut over the trees on the left side of the ninth fairway, clear over the adjacent first fairway and nearly out of bounds. He hit a provisional ball in case the first one ended up out of play, though that proved unnecessary when he found his ball in bounds, but behind a tree.
“I actually pushed it a little bit,” he said, sufficiently understated.
He then pitched a low wedge under the tree and onto the green and walked off with, in the world of Mickelson, a routine par.
“I wasn’t quite as sharp as I wanted to be,” said Mickelson, making his first start of the year. “But it was a good first day.”