Ross: Mickelson to rest on the clubhouse lead at Merion Golf Club
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
ARDMORE, Pa. -- His private jet was wheels up in San Diego at 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday. His tee time at Merion Golf Club was 8 hours and 11 minutes away.
Phil Mickelson wasn't worried, though. After all, he'd taken red-eyes before, hopped off the plane and headed straight to a corporate outing.
But he wouldn't be playing golf with his sponsors on Thursday. He had a date with Keegan Bradley and Steve Stricker in the first round of the 113th U.S. Open, a tournament Mickelson dearly wants to win but one that has only given him heartache in those five runner-up finishes.
Amanda Mickelson knows how important the U.S. Open is to her father. She even told him she didn't mind if he skipped her eighth grade graduation on Wednesday evening. But Mickelson was having none of that -- Amanda was speaking, after all, one of just four chosen from her class.
"She did a great job and she even quoted Ron Burgundy, so it was funny," Mickelson said referring to Will Ferrell's character in the movie “Anchorman.” "And I was really glad I was there."
Turns out, he did Amanda proud at Merion, too. Mickelson bogeyed the 11th hole, his first of the day, but played the next 17 in 4 under and posted a 67 that set the standard everyone else would chase.
"It wasn't the greatest start," Mickelson acknowledged. "But it's funny, (caddie) Bones (Mackay) and I have a saying because I've had some of my best rounds of my career that have started with a bogey and we just kind of looked at each other and laughed. ... And that happened to be the last one I made."
The last time Mickelson shot this low in the first round of the U.S. Open was in 1999 at Pinehurst -- five days before Amanda was born. He finished second that week to the late Payne Stewart, who holed a 15-footer for par at the 72nd hole to seal the one-shot win, then cupped the disappointed Mickelson's face in his hands, pulled him close and told the big lefthander that he was going to love being a father.
And he does.
On Thursday, though, Mickelson had a job to do and he mastered a challenging Merion layout, eschewing that not-always-trusty driver and hitting 11 of 14 fairways, then finding all but four greens in regulation. He scrambled with the best of them and his putter was cooperative, too, as he used it just 29 times.
"He played very well," Bradley said. "... He's had a crazy last 24 hours. Sometimes that helps, not thinking about it."
That certainly seemed to be the case on Thursday.
Mickelson had come to Merion early last week to play a practice round and plot strategy. So with Monday a washout, literally, the proud papa, who likes to practice off-site in the days prior to a major anyway, decided to head back home to sunny southern California to prepare.
"It gives me a chance to get a quiet environment, get away from the pressure and anxiety and all that builds up for a desire to win this tournament, whether it's the U.S. Open or any major," Mickelson said. "... And it was helpful that I had an opportunity to practice in good weather conditions on a good practice facility, get my game sharp."
The cross-country flight also offered Mickelson the opportunity to review his notes and relive his practice rounds at Merion. He thought about where the pins would be and where he wanted his misses to be. He studied the green complexes and charts that he had made.
"I think that mental preparation is every bit as important as physical," Mickelson explained.
So all that he lacked on Thursday was a little shuteye.
Mickelson got several hours sleep on the plane before it landed in Philadelphia at 3:30 in the morning, then took another catnap in the parking lot before heading to the practice range two hours later. The lengthy morning weather delay worked in Mickelson's favor, too, because it allowed him even more rest.
The jet lag didn't kick in until the par-3 ninth hole, which was Mickelson's 17th of the day. He told Bones he had finally hit the wall after putting his tee shot 20 feet from the flagstick.
"And he said, ‘Well, let's just take a little mental break as we walk down there, and I ended up making the putt,’" Mickelson said. "So being able to tune in and tune out was kind of nice the last hole or two."
After Mickelson finished his round a reporter asked him if he wanted to fly home again Thursday night. After all, this first commute had been pretty darn successful.
"I don't want to push it, no," Mickelson said with a smile.
Besides, he wants to stick around and see how all this turns out.