NORTON — The Deutsche Bank Championship is Tiger Woods’s tournament — his eponymous foundation has taken over the management of our local brush with the PGA Tour. But somebody forgot to tell Phil Mickelson because he played like the tournament at TPC Boston belonged to him on Friday.
Playing as part of a trumpeted triumvirate with Woods, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, and Masters winner Adam Scott, Mickelson staked claim to the course and a first-round lead, flirting with golf’s magic number before settling for an 8-under par 63 to earn a share of the lead with Brian Davis after the first round.
It was vintage Lefty in our backyard. The large gallery got to see the two most iconic players on tour, Woods and Mickelson, for the price of one round. Mickelson’s round was his best when paired with Tiger, and since 2007, he has shot an average score of 69.27 to Woods’s 69.93 when the superstars have played together.
The 43-year-old Mickelson is probably the closest rival Woods has had during his career, both in terms of talent and popularity. Mickelson won a major this year, the British Open, something Tiger hasn’t done since 2008.
While Woods’s game is full of ferocity and imposing strength, Mickelson’s is smoother than Kentucky bourbon. You feel like he could swing his clubs in a forest — which is what he had to do to scramble for bogey on his final hole of the day — and not so much as rustle a leaf.
Mickelson has the relaxed, picturesque swing that every weekend duffer would like to call their own. Combine that with a steady putting stroke that took him around the course in 25 putts, and Mickelson makes a round like Friday’s look as easy as rolling out of bed, well, as long as it’s not the soft bed Woods said tweaked his back last week at the Barclay’s in New York.
Teeing off from the 10th hole, Mickelson birdied seven of the first nine holes, including five straight (14 through 18) to go out in a scorching 7-under 28, matching Charley Hoffman for the lowest nine-hole score on tour this year.
“After shooting 7 under the first nine it was going to be a good round as long as I didn’t mess it up,” said Mickelson.
He drained a 28-foot putt for birdie on No. 11, made 18-foot and 15-foot birdie putts on 14 and 15 and an 11-footer for birdie from the edge of the fringe on No. 17.
“I putted really well,” said Mickelson. “My ball striking was OK. I didn’t knock it down; I didn’t hit shots exceedingly close, other than the eagle putt on 2. But what I did do is make a lot of 12- to 20-foot putts, the ones that you need to get a really hot round. I ended up making them and quite a few of them.”
Mickelson acknowledged The Number — “59” — was flashing through his head.
It was still within reach after he followed a bunker-induced bogey on No. 1 with an eagle on the 542-yard par-5 second, the second-longest hole on the course. That put him at 8 under.
However, the rare short game misstep by Mickelson undermined the drive for 59. He flubbed a lob shot on the par-4 fourth, his second shot, and had to settle for par.
“When I eagled 2, I thought it was realistic. I needed to get 3 and 4,” said Mickelson. “When I didn’t birdie 4, I stopped thinking 59. I started just trying to get one or two more to shoot a low round in the 60s.”
That must be a nice feeling, settling for a round in the low 60s.
Mickelson teed off on his final hole, No. 9, needing a birdie to tie the tournament record of 61. But his tee shot went where only an arborist would want to visit on a golf course.
He dipped into his bag of Lefty tricks and blasted a shot out of the formidable foliage, nearly landing on his derrière to advance the ball 36 yards.
He managed a magnificent bogey. On this day, even Mickelson’s bogeys were endearing to the TPC Boston crowd.
While Woods was grimacing and huffing his way to a hard-fought 3-under 68, Mickelson was a visor-wearing vision of mirth, acknowledging the shouts of well-wishers and grinning his way around the course.
After the bogey on No. 4, he flipped his ball to a young boy in a green hat. That made the day of 7-year-old C.J. Agnew of Pembroke, who now has a lucky hat.
Mickelson, who won this event the first time he played in it in 2007 and finished in a tie for fourth last year, said he enjoys TPC Boston.
“”I do like the golf course a lot,” said Mickelson. “I think it’s one of the best risk/reward courses that we play. I feel like there’s plenty of room off the tee to get the ball in the fairway. The fairways are generous. If I’m able to hit them, I’m able to be aggressive into the greens, which is the strength of my game, my iron play.”
It’s already been a good year for Lefty, who won his fifth major and also scored victories at the Scottish Open and the Phoenix Open.
But a win here he feels would give him a chance at an accolade he’s still chasing — PGA Player of the Year.
“It’s something I’d like to capture. That would mean a lot to me.” he said.
His chief competition for that award is none other than Woods.
Mickelson was asked does playing Woods bring out the best in him?
“After today it’s hard to think any differently,” he said.