By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
GULLANE, Scotland -- Even with the wind essentially reduced to a gentle breeze, Phil Mickelson said Muirfield was "beyond difficult" in Thursday's first round of The Open Championship.
So he had to be pleased with a round of 69 that left last week's Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open winner in the thick of things as Mickelson chases what would be the third leg of a potential career Grand Slam.
"I played well," Mickelson said. "I had a spurt there in the middle of the round where I had some technical difficulties and hit some poor shots but was able to make pars and then turned it around. I kind of keyed in on it after the par 13, and from there on in I hit a couple of good shots and made a couple of birdies coming in.
"I got very lucky to play early today because as the day wore on and we got to the back nine, about a third of every green started to die and became brown. And the pins were very edgy, on the slopes and whatnot, that the guys that played early had a huge, huge break."
Mickelson set the tone for the day with birdies on the second and third holes to get into red numbers -- where he stayed for the rest of the round. He gave one back at the eighth hole but gutted out five straight pars before making consecutive birdies on Nos. 14 and 15.
But a three-putt bogey at the 18th left Mickelson three off the pace set by Zach Johnson. Those fast greens, baked by unseasonably warm temperatures of late, were definitely a challenge.
"I'm trying to lag it, because I know it's quick," he said, thinking back to the three-putt on the final hole. "I'm trying to lag the one on 17 and it still goes six or seven feet by. No. 8 is probably the worst one that you'll see if you watch it on TV. It won't stop until it collects in a little level area about eight feet away, six, eight feet away.
"Very difficult conditions and playing early gave us at least a fighting chance."
Mickelson, who has only posted two top-10s in 19 previous Open Championships, was steady on Thursday. He hit 10 fairways and all but five greens in regulation. His putts per hole average was 1.61, as well.
"I love the fact that I shot under par, because it's a very challenging course out there," he said. "I don't expect anybody to beat the lead from the morning wave, I just don't think it's possible."