OAKMONT, Pa. - With an injured left wrist, Phil Mickelson said before starting play in the U.S. Open that he would be focused on avoiding the rough at Oakmont Country Club.
Mickelson hit just five of 14 fairways and managed to land on only seven of 18 greens in regulation. But he finished with eight straight pars (Nos. 2-9) for a 4-over 74 in yesterday's first round. All things considered, it might have been among the day's best performances.
"I wouldn't say I'm proud," Mickelson commented, "but I believe I'll get better and my ball-striking will get sharper as the week goes on. I think I'm below [what will be] the winning score [relative to par] so I'm not in a position where I have to make birdies. I just have to keep making pars. Four pars is like a birdie."
He struggled to do that early because he was tentative on his first couple swings from the rough, releasing his left hand so quickly that it almost appeared as if he were taking one-handed swings.
"I felt like the first couple, where the lie wasn't very good, that I didn't want to go after it and jar [the wrist] that early in the round," Mickelson said. "So I let go right away to avoid that.
"[The injury] is just aggravating. I wouldn't say it's painful, not a shooting pain like at the Memorial. It's just annoying. It's a little sore and aggravating, but I feel like I can hit good shots."
Mickelson hit only one fairway on the back nine, where he started his round, and made the turn in 3-over 38. He then bogeyed No. 1 before starting his string of pars.
"On [Nos.] 7-8-9-10, the stretch where guys are going to lose this tournament, I played them even par," he said. "I made some key par putts and I was encouraged with how the last eight holes went. I played nine-hole practice rounds and hadn't played 18, so I was afraid I might have issues on the back nine. But it wasn't a problem."
His play off the tee was, and he faced some shots from the rough he would have preferred to skip.
"I have to get better," he said. "I felt rusty and hit some hybrids off the tee to try to get it into play and missed fairways. I'm OK with missing the fairway when I'm hitting a driver, but when I'm hitting the hybrid I've got to get it in play. The first 10 or so holes I wasn't able to do that. But I worked hard the last few holes to stay in it and, now, I just need a good round to get me to the weekend."
STRONG FINISH: Tiger Woods felt that Oakmont "was as soft and receptive as you're possibly going to have it and not many of the guys are taking it to the golf course."
The world's No. 1-ranked player carded a 1-over 71, three shots off the first-round lead, and was more than satisfied thanks to a solid finish.
"I ran my putt about eight feet past on [No.] 16 and made it; had a nice up-and-down for birdie at 17 and saved par at the 18th. So, basically, I could have lost three shots there but I was able to keep it together."
Woods felt that "the USGA did a fantastic job with the easiest pin [positions] in each section [of the greens] and they gave us a chance to go ahead and post a number today." Still, only two players broke par of 70.
OUT OF BAGDAD: They have come a long way, both agree, and yesterday they stood side by side on the first tee in the National Open at Oakmont. Bubba Watson is from Bagdad, Fla. Boo Weekley insists he is not. But they were teammates on the high school golf team. Heath Slocum, another pro golfer, was there too. But Slocum is not here at the U.S. Open, so only two of the Bagdadians could be paired together in yesterday's first round. Watson fired an even-par 70, and Weekley came in with a 72.
"We both had respectable scores and it was fun," Watson said. "It's always nice to see a familiar face and have a nice talk. We've never played together [as pros], I don't think. But I know we always have the same thought when we step on the first tee. We've come a long way."
Bagdad and Milton are two small towns on Florida's panhandle, a ways northeast of Pensacola. If not for the Blackwater River, the towns would bump into one another. Weekley, who captured his first PGA Tour title earlier this year at the Heritage Classic, lists Milton as his place of birth.
"Bagdad is a great little town," Watson said. "There's a post office. No red lights; all stop signs. Boo says he's not from there. He says he's from across the river. But I admit to it."
BIRTHDAY BOY: Fred Funk celebrated his 51st birthday yesterday by shooting an opening round, 1-over 71. A straight shooter, he hit 11 of 14 fairways.
"Old course, old guy, good play," was Funk's explanation. "I'm not surprised. If I'm playing well I know how good I can play. I think par doesn't know an age as long as you're playing well. It's not an overwhelmingly long course, so it's a course that rewards accuracy. Most of these holes don't play out of my reach."
THREE AMIGOS: One of the pairings during the first two rounds of the Open features Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia, and Pablo Martin (pronounced Marteen).
"This is the first time ever [while playing in the U.S.] that I had a group of all Spaniards," Olazabal said.
Olazabal matched par of 70 yesterday while Martin fired a 71 and Garcia struggled to a 79.
Martin recently turned professional but, in April, became the first amateur ever to win a European Tour event when he prevailed at the Portuguese Open.
"I have to say it's the first time I've seen him play under these conditions and he did very well," Olazabal said of Martin. "His short game is good, really good."
ROUNDS OF NOTE: David Toms had four birdies and was at 3-under through 12 holes. He finished his round on the front nine and recorded bogeys on five of the last six holes for a 72 Sergio Garcia had two double bogeys, five bogeys, and no birdies during a round of 79. Thirty-three of those strokes were putts, but he had only one three-putt green Ohioan Ben Curtis hit 15 greens in regulation en route to a 1-over 71 Defending champion Geoff Ogilvy, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, and Justin Rose were also among a large contingent at 71 Ernie Els, the '94 Open champion at Oakmont, opened with a 73.
QUOTE-UNQUOTE: "I'm not worried about my score, just the way I played. I wouldn't have minded shooting 73 if I felt I played good golf. The problem for me is trying to play well the next three days after not playing well today." - Ireland's Padraig Harrington.
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