NORTON — It had been five years since this threesome had convened on the same tee and nobody had to remind Tiger Woods of when and where. “Torrey in ’08,” he recalled. It was Woods and Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott at the US Open, which just happened to be the site of Tiger’s last victory in a major. “Just to be even the third wheel in that group was really something I’ll remember forever,” Scott mused on the eve of the Deutsche Bank Championship here at TPC Boston.
Scott has a fresher and far more cherished memory now, the Masters green jacket that he acquired in April. But in this company, he joked, he’d be third wheel again. No matter how well or poorly his game is going — and it’s going more than passably this year — Woods is where the conversation starts. And Mickelson, who collected his first claret jug at Muirfield in July, has had the hot hand recently. But nobody figured he’d torch the first nine holes the way he did Friday, making the turn at 7 under after five straight birdies and needing only 10 putts to do it. “Phil was getting everything,” Woods said.
On any other day, Tiger would have been the story. Until he got through Thursday’s pro-am without being bent double by his cranky back, there was some question as to whether he would tee it up at all. So on Friday, when he shot a 3 under — “a decent number” — that positioned him reasonably for Saturday afternoon, that made for considerable chatter. But the buzz was all about his lefthanded partner, his 8 under (tied for the lead with Brian Davis) and the great escape he made from the thicket on 9, which was his finishing hole.
Mickelson and Woods had been paired for 32 rounds in PGA Tour events and 10 times in majors, most recently last year’s Open. This time Woods was the sidekick, scratching out pars while Mickelson was making birdies with a magic wand. Once his run started on the 14th hole, Lefty was all by himself.
They may be the planet’s top three players at the moment, with Woods the leader, but they weren’t a trio in the tee box. When they turned up at 8:40 a.m. on the 10th tee with a crowd of several hundred followers already waiting, there were friendly handshakes all around. When Woods and Mickelson each birdied the 11th (they started on the back), there were nods and smiles between them. But when Mickelson heated up he was the gallery’s darling, with fist-bumps and “Hey, guys!” for the kids and thumbs-up all around.
Ty-gah still has his following hereabouts as elsewhere, but now that victory no longer is assumed, now that others are winning majors once all but conceded to him, there’s a willingness by his adherents to be entranced by others. Once Mickelson hung up his 28, whatever was happening on other fairways and greens became irrelevant. When he followed a bogey on 1 with an eagle on 2, Mickelson thought a 59 still was possible but the birdies went away.
Still ahead, though, was the improbable exit from underbrush so dark and deep that spectators thought Mickelson was crazy not to take a drop. His tee shot on No. 9 was laughably brutal and when it soared far right and bounced in hot, it seemed unlikely that anyone but a chipmunk would find it. But Mickelson opted to go hunting, peering through branches for a flash of white. “Found a ball,” someone called. “Callaway 4.” “With four dots over it?” Mickelson inquired.
The ball was tucked away where only a southpaw could have a chance at it. If he took the drop, Mickelson reckoned, the branches would have hindered him. He had an opening out of the brush and ample room for a swing. “So I felt like it was worth the risk,” he concluded.
Woods and Scott were waiting on the fairway but they were bystanders. The fans up around the green figured that Mickelson had ducked into a port-a-potty. Everybody else was by the cart path, watching Lefty try the hero shot. When he punched it out onto the rough, the fans made him for Houdini. When Mickelson launched his next ball onto the green, it was the only shot anyone talked about. Much ado about a bogey, but it gave Mickelson a 63 and a tie for the first-round lead.
It was a lovely round but it wasn’t for a jug or a jacket. “There’s still 72 holes,” Woods observed. “This is just one day.” The reprise comes at 1:10 Saturday afternoon on the first tee. Mickelson will be the one with four dots on his ball.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.