Mickelson resurrected at Riviera

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Just because your name is Phil Mickelson, you don’t get an automatic exemption from 7:32 a.m. starting times.

The sun was brighter than a laser beam as it popped over the horizon, but Early Morning Mick appeared to be staring it down. He was intense. You would be, too, if the entire world of golf was whispering in your ear that you had lost your desire, or your touch, or your ability to win.

In three PGA Tour events this year, Mickelson won just $30,290. His best finish was T-42 at the Buick Invitation in his hometown of San Diego. His scoring average was a sky-high 72.56. He was hitting less than half the fairways (49.6 percent) and averaging 29.44 putts per round, abysmal by Mickelsonian standards.

It was as if a boisterous homestate crowd at the Northern Trust Open was ready to chant: “Show us a trick, Philly Mick, and reverse your fortunes, will you? We’re all waiting for you to bust loose.”

And, thank the lord of birdies, bust loose he did. His first hole – the 10th at Riviera Country Club – set the tone for what was a remarkable day.

The 10th at Riviera is arguably the best short par-4 in all of golf. Playing at 315 yards for this tournament, it tantalizes players with a reachable green. Of course, there is all that sand that can play a game of helter-skelter with overly aggressive golfers.

Trevor Immelman, playing alongside Mickelson, started his round by taking four shots to reach the putting surface (he made a bogey 5).

Mickelson, tossing caution aside, pulled out his driver and took a mighty swipe at the ball. How long is Mickelson off the tee? His drive on 10 ended up some 25 yards over the green. His ball was nestled in heavy grass, barely visible to spectators who gathered around it.

No matter. Mickelson, taking a wedge swing every bit as fierce as his driver swing, lofted the ball over a bunker. Although there was only about 10 feet of green to work with, the ball landed on the putting surface as if wearing a parachute. It stopped six feet from the hole, and Mickelson knocked it in for birdie.

“One of the better shots I’ve hit this year,” Mickelson would later say of the wedge shot.

Just ahead of Mickelson, former major champions Zach Johnson and Retief Goosen bogeyed the 10th hole. It was a brilliant birdie for Lefty, who added seven more during the round for an 8-under-par 63.

It would have been 62 if he hadn’t missed a three-foot birdie putt at No. 11, but, what the heck, nobody’s perfect.

“I feel like I’m back on the right track,” he said. “I’m driving the ball much better, and longer, too (with a touring pro version of Callaway’s FT-9 driver).”

Throughout the round, Mickelson had the look of a man on a mission. He chatted amiably with playing companions Immelman and Robert Allenby, but it was clear he wanted to make a statement.

Details of that statement: 0 bogeys, 8 birdies (with putts of 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 20 feet and a chip of 16 feet), 22 putts, 12 of 18 greens in regulation, 7 of 14 fairways hit.

My theory on Mickelson’s slow start in 2009: He has become a homebody at heart and hates leaving his family. Furthermore, he is just arrogant enough to believe he can summon his golf game whenever he needs it. This may have been true at one time, but, at 38, practice and preparation are more important than they used to be.

Translation: At the start of the year, he was happy at home and his golf game was rusty.

How much does Mickelson want to be with his family? Here at the Northern Trust Open, he is commuting by airplane from his home – some 100 miles to the south in Rancho Santa Fe.

“An hour and 15 minutes, door to door,” said T.R. Reinman of Gaylord Sports, Mickelson’s agent.

“I’ll be back in time to pick up the kids from school,” Mickelson said after the round.

In your mind, imagine Mickelson and his three children. They are met at the door by his wife, Amy.

“How was it, dear?” she asks.

“Oh, just another day at the office, sweetheart,” he answers evasively.

“But are you back?” she asks insistently.

“Yes, I’m back,” he says. “Now let’s play with the kids.”

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