PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It’s getting late early for Phil Mickelson at the 119th U.S. Open. A 1-over 72 in Thursday’s opening round didn’t necessarily eliminate all chance of him winning this long sought-after major, but it certainly didn’t help.
Rickie Fowler was among three players posting a 5-under 66 in the morning groupings, leaving Mickelson with plenty of ground to gain if he’s going to stay in contention for the only major he has never won.
With little wind to offer protection, Pebble Beach was there for the taking, but Mickelson failed to take advantage of the benign conditions.
“There was a good opportunity to score and I played better than I shot,” Mickelson said. “But there’s three more days. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully I’ll play better each day. But I thought it was a great opportunity to get a few shots and I just didn’t do it.”
Mickelson couldn’t and didn’t blame the course setup for his early stumble, which was noteworthy. Mickelson was one of the players who have been critical of recent U.S. Open setups, particularly last year at Shinnecock. Mickelson was among those grumbling about the way the organization has made courses so difficult and pushed them so close to the edge it has bordered on being unfair.
Who can forget Mickelson chasing his rolling putt at last year’s U.S. Open, drawing a two-stroke penalty and embarrassing tournament organizers? He upped the rhetoric last month when he suggested rain is the only way to keep the USGA from losing the course.
“I’ve played in what, 29 U.S. Opens?” he said on Golf Channel. “One hundred percent of the time they have messed it up if it doesn’t rain. The rain is the governor. That’s the only governor that they have. And if they don’t have a governor, they don’t know how to control
There was nothing to complain about Thursday, as conditions were spectacular. Temperatures were cool with very little wind. The greens were pristine.
Fowler quickly took advantage, posting a number everyone else had to chase. Mickelson couldn’t keep up. He played the very gettable first seven holes at even par and finished at 1-over, including a bogey at the difficult par-4 eighth. Earlier, he made birdie at the par-5 14th, but gave it back with the bogey at the par-4 16th.
“I missed two fairways with a 4-iron and a 5-iron,” Mickelson said. “I bogeyed 16 and 8 with irons off the tee. Those are two mistakes you can’t do. But I thought I played a lot better than I scored and hopefully I’ll get better as the week goes on.”
A bogey at the par-4 third hole came when he missed a 1-foot tap-in for par. It was ugly whiff that may come back to haunt him.
“I flinched,” he said. “I should be able to tap that in. But I flinched.”
The controversy over recent U.S. Open setups might have been one of the reasons Mickelson declined being part of a group of players interviewed by the media either Tuesday or Wednesday. Mickelson is normally a given at such sessions based on his status on tour and the fact the U.S. Open is the only major tournament he needs to win to complete a career grand slam.
Mickelson didn’t exactly heap praise on the USGA for how Pebble Beach played Thursday. The rough was brutal, but the fairway grass and greens were plush.
“It seems like it,” Mickelson said when asked if the USGA got it right. “There’s three more days. You don’t know how the weather is going to be and all that stuff. But it seems like they did a heck of a job.”
Mickelson didn’t seem concerned about all the ground he has to make up during Friday’s second round.
“I just need to go out and shoot something in the 60s [on Friday] and I’ll be in a good spot for the weekend,” he said. “I’m playing well enough to do it.”
If he doesn’t, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.
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