James Lawton: Mickelson stretches his fans’ belief in holy grail

Poor round challenges gallery’s ability to hold firm in support of favourite’s drive to usurp Woods.

If Tiger Woods belongs to the world, there is no doubt who owns Phil Mickelson. It is America and, once again, the nation's favourite golfing son was embraced as though he was a nervous high-school boy on graduation day.



Unfortunately, that was very much as he performed, perhaps partly because his playing partner Jim Furyk, whose only major break from the shadows of a splendid but only modestly celebrated career came when he happened to win the US Open, made the great course seem no more challenging than the neighbourhood pitch and putt.

Furyk shot a locked-down, cold-as-ice six-under-par 66, to mostly polite applause. Mickelson ran the full gamut from slightly chilled to merely lukewarm with a one-over-par 73 and the mood of middle America would not have been more sullen if it had just been announced that Bernie Madoff had been given a free pardon.

The trouble is that Mickelson (right0 is 38 now and maybe confronting his last serious brush with the history of a sport which has so generously bestowed on him some of its most dazzling skills.

However, the underpinning provided by a natural-born killing instinct has gone missing too many times – if it hadn't, he would have at least doubled his haul of three major titles – for too much confidence to be invested in his ability to strike for the pinnacle of his career. It is one that in the dawn beckoned to him after the surge of brilliant form which had already brought him two heavyweight PGA titles this year in Los Angeles and Doral. On offer, still but only just, is the undisputed status of the world's No 1 player. This was the lure as Mickelson teed up after tumultuous gallery acclaim on another Georgian morning made of honey and wine.

All Mickelson needed to do over the next few days was win his third Green Jacket, while the Tiger failed to make the top five. It is the goals the goal of his life, one that has grown, or maybe festered, in the 12 years he has spent living under the weight of the Tiger's aura ... and achievements. Now it looks as remote as a John Daly seminar on the value of temperance.

Given his welcome on the course, it was maybe inevitable that Mickelson's start should be so anticlimactic – a first-hole journey from bunker to bunker and to bogey. Of course, it would have taken a much bigger disaster to disperse the enduring belief of the Country Club crowd in the ageing All American boy from southern Californian.

"Come on, Phil, you're the guy," cried one of his fans, a large, elderly man with a huge cigar jammed in his lips, and there was a rapturous chorus of cheers. Mickelson, who was dressed in a black and gold golfing outfit so garish it might have earned the approval of another American hero, the late Elvis Presley, waved his arm somewhat languidly in thanks, but perhaps the reminder that he carried many more than his own hopes had the right effect, at least for a little while.

His response was to birdie the second, despite hitting a bunker for the third time, and then the fifth and as he approached the turn for home he had played his way into the confidence of his army of supporters, and maybe even his own.

Still, despite the beautiful, almost nonchalant precision of his short game and the easy arc of his drive, it was not so easy to believe in the strength of his latest challenge to the Tiger – or, it quickly became clear, the perfectly grooved Furyk. Later, the former US Open champion declared, "It seemed to me the greens were quite accessible today, so I let the ball roll – without being too greedy."

All Mickelson could muster was the traditional hope of all those nearly obliterated by the flow and the ebb of the first-round action. "I'm not out of it," he declared, "but I sure have a lot of work to do."

For Mickelson the threat is of a grievous loss of momentum. His wins here in 2004 and 2006 were more than acts of defiance against cruel fate.

They were a celebration of natural gifts that have rarely been matched in the history of the game and when he added the PGA title there was a powerful sense that at last he was making a serious move towards much more significant professional fulfilment.

Also true is the fact this week that he has rarely been so emphatic that he is comfortable in his own skin, that the Tiger no long inhabits his psyche like an unwelcome visitor who refuses to be shown the door.

He certainly found it quite hard to conceal his irritation when he was asked if his major wins had a special asterisk of distinction because each of them came when the Tiger was in the field. Mickelson said, "I just don't know the answer to that question. I certainly don't feel as though any of last year's majors when he didn't compete were detracted from. I think they are still every bit as important as any others.

"I haven't sat down and looked at how many tournaments I've won with him in the field."

There was just enough edge in his voice to give credence to one television debate launched even as Mickelson was attempting to put back together his round after the jarring blow of that first-hole bogey.

Does Tiger, a panel of old golf legends was asked, intimidate Phil? There was also the supplementary: is it hell for him when the Tiger's name appears on the leader board? The consensus was, quite often yes, but not too seriously when "Lefty" is on top of his game.

He was some way from this in good scoring conditions but there was also some evidence that, after the rare lapse of missing the cut at Houston last weekend, he had returned to Augusta with the idea of becoming No 1 firmly at the front of his mind.

Yet with Mickelson there is always at least a hint of impending disaster – and few have been bigger, anywhere in the game, than the one that came to him when he threw away the US Open in Winged Foot, New York, in 2006. He went into the last hole a shot ahead of the Australian Geoff Ogilvy – and he could almost taste the exhilaration of joining only Tiger and Ben Hogan on the historic mark of winning three successive major titles, having won here after taking the PGA in 2005.

Yet here was the supreme example of Mickelson frailty. He picked out a driver, despite having hit only two of 13 fairways, and promptly drove against a corporate tent. He then elected to whack his way through the trees rather than play gently on to the fairway. Unfortunately, he hit a tree and plugged into a greenside bunker. Result: double-bogey and one lost place in the history of the game

Three years on he is still heard to mumble, "I just can't believe I was such an idiot." Perhaps America's boy finally learnt his lesson. That, was the act of faith being stretched so perilously as Jim Furyk, not to mention the Tiger, made world conquest seem as far away as ever.

*Today

(US unless stated; all times BST, x=amateur)

13.00 L Mize, J Merrick, (x) D Kittleson

13.11 T Hamilton, S Flesch, M Goggin (Aus)

13.22 T Watson, I Poulter (GB), (x) S Wilson

13.33 A Baddeley (Aus), B Watson, G McDowell (GB)

13.44 M O'Meara, P Perez, D J Trahan

13.55 F Couples, R Mediate, (x) J Newman

14.06 S Kjeldsen (Den), S O'Hair, R Sterne (SA)

14.17 A Romero (Arg), B Weekley, C Campbell

14.28 B Crenshaw, P Casey (GB), S Stricker

14.39 Y Yong-eun (Kor), R Allenby (Aus), H Mahan

14.50 Z Johnson, L Wen-tang (Tai), R Karlsson (Swe)

15.12 J M Olazabal (Sp), M Kaymer (Ger), B Snedeker

15.23 K J Choi (Kor), A Quiros (Sp), K Perry

15.34 T Immelman (SA), A Scott (Aus), (x) D Lee (NZ)

15.45 T Woods, S Cink, J M Singh (India)

15.56 A Kim, R McIlroy (GB), R Ishikawa (Japan)

16.07 I Woosnam (GB), C Reavie, B Baird

16.18 S Lyle (GB), B Mayfair, T Clark (SA)

16.29 K Sutherland, R Fisher (GB), P Marksaeng (Thai)

16.40 L Oosthuizen (SA), C Pettersson (Swe), D Hart

16.51 R Floyd, J Leonard, (x) R Saxton (Neth)

17.02 F Zoeller, M Campbell (NZ), K Duke

17.24 B Curtis, N Watney, M A Jimenez (Sp)

17.35 C Stadler, R Sabbatini (SA), D Johnson

17.46 G Player (SA), L Donald (GB), S Ames (Can)

17.57 R Goosen (SA), S Hansen (Den), S Katayama (Japan)

18.08 B Langer (Ger), G Norman (Aus), L Westwood (GB)

18.19 J Rose (GB), H Stenson (Swe), A Cabrera (Arg)

18.30 V Singh (Fiji), G Ogilvy (Aus), E Els (SA)

18.41 M Weir (Can), P Harrington (Irl), R Imada (Japan)

18.52 P Mickelson, C Villegas (Col), J Furyk

19.03 S Appleby (Aus), O Wilson, S Garcia (Sp)

Weather

*Today

Sunny spells, max temp 24C, wind 15mph, humidity 51%

*Tomorrow

Sunny, max temp 25C, wind 15mph, humidity 40%

*Sunday

Sunny, max temp 2C, wind 8mph, humidity 39%

Television schedule

*Today

BBC2 (21:00-22:30),

BBC1 (22:35-00:30)

*Tomorrow BBC2 (20:30-00:00)

*Sunday BBC2 (18:55-00:00)

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