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Lefty comes back to life at PGA

Posted: Friday, August 12, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — The final major of the year looks nothing like the others.

There was Phil Mickelson, swallowed up by the gallery and exchanging high-fives as he rediscovered some of his magic Thursday at the PGA Championship.

There was Ben Curtis, atop the leaderboard at a major for the first time since his British Open victory two years ago.

Nowhere to be found was Tiger Woods.

The guy who already won the Masters and British Open, and finished second in the U.S. Open, was buried behind 11 club pros in a tie for 113th after a 75, his worst position ever in a Grand Slam event.

‘‘If you’re looking for me to shed a tear, it’s not going to happen,’’ Mickelson said. ‘‘We all know Sunday his name will be up there.’’

Maybe so, but Mickelson is intent on keeping his own name on top.

An afterthought since the majors began in April, Mickelson came back to life Thursday on steamy Baltusrol with a 3-under 67 to join a crowd atop the leaderboard that included just about everyone but Woods.

Not that anyone felt sorry for him.

‘‘There’s probably plenty of guys happy to see him down the leaderboard for a change,’’ Stuart Appleby said after a late bogey dropped him into the six-way tie at 67. ‘‘I don’t think you’re going to get some, ’Oh, I’m so sorry. What a pity.’ You guys can write about someone else for a change.’’

Mickelson got through the opening seven holes — among the most punishing stretch in golf — at 1 over par. Then, he turned matters over to his putter. He knocked in a pair of 35-foot birdie putts around the turn, made another long birdie on the 14th and joined the leaders with a two-putt birdie on the 18th.

‘‘It wasn’t quite as stressful a round,’’ Mickelson said.

Trevor Immelman, Rory Sabbatini and Stephen Ames also shot 67, with Ames having a chance for the outright lead until his 20-foot eagle putt slid by the cup.

It was the largest logjam in the first round of a major since a six-way tie at the 1989 British Open.

Retief Goosen birdied his last two holes for a 68, while Vijay Singh did the same to salvage a 70.

On a steamy day in the 90s that required maintenance crews to douse the greens with water, 27 players managed to break par on the 7,392-yard Lower Course at Baltusrol.

Woods was not among them. Not even close.

He three-putted his first hole for bogey, then dropped shots on three of the easiest holes on the course. His 75 was not his worst score in a major in the opening round, but his position — a tie for 113th — was his worst since a tie for 104th in last year’s PGA Championship.

He dropped his putter in disgust and flung an iron after his approach spun off the green, yet Woods said his patience kept it from being worse.

‘‘I’m still in it,’’ he said. ‘‘There won’t be too many guys under par by the end of the week. Hopefully, I can get myself there over the next three days.’’

That’s assuming he gets three more days.

Mickelson hasn’t been this excited since he showed up at Augusta National having won his third PGA Tour title of the young season. But he finished 10th in the Masters, where the only noise he made was an argument with Singh over spike marks, and hasn’t been the same.

He took himself out of contention at the U.S. Open with a 77 in the second round and tied for 33rd. He broke par only once at St. Andrews and tied for 61st. Some began to wonder if that breakthrough major won last year at the Masters might have been an aberration.

‘‘I have a little bit different feeling heading into this tournament than I’ve had in some of the others,’’ Mickelson said. ‘‘I feel a lot more confident in my game than I did heading into the other majors. And as I said earlier in the week, I really want to put everything I have into finishing off the year right.’’

Ditching his visor for a cap to protect against sunburn on his scalp, it wasn’t hard to spot Lefty. He loves playing in the New York area, and calls his experience at Bethpage three years ago one of his most memorable, even though he finished three shots behind Woods at the U.S. Open.

It showed from the time he ambled toward the first tee, and an enormous cheer rang out. And his adventures on the 482-yard sixth hole even made a bogey easy to swallow.

From the rough, his only option was to play down the 17th fairway. Blocked by trees and thousands of fans, Mickelson hit a sky-high lob wedge from 92 yards over the gallery to about 5 feet, then jogged along the crowd, exchanging high-fives and getting slaps on the back.

He missed the par putt, but relished the moment.

‘‘That was kind of cool there, going through the gallery after hitting right over them,’’ he said.

Woods found no such enthusiasm.

Trying to become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1975 to start and finish the year by winning majors, there were early signs of a struggle. Woods had a stern look on his face, a three-putt bogey on his opening hole, and tee shots that rarely found the short grass.

‘‘When I did hit it well off the tee, I didn’t hit my irons close,’’ he said. ‘‘And then when I did hit it close, I didn’t make a putt. Every hole, you could say there’s something that I did wrong. And that was frustrating.’’

Nothing bugged him like the 554-yard 18th, the easiest scoring hole on the Lower Course.

A tee shot in the fairway would have left him a long iron to the green, but this drive sailed so far to the left that it clipped a tree and landed just inside a hazard line.

His ball was plugged so badly that Woods and caddie Steve Williams assumed someone had stepped on it during a brief search. No one could confirm that, so Woods wound up taking a drop where it entered the hazard, played back to the fairway and took bogey.

‘‘If the ball hits a tree and ricochets down, and the ground is pretty hard there, it should not have embedded that far,’’ Woods said. ‘‘It was totally unplayable.’’

He headed straight to his car, saying he wanted to forget this round. Instead of going for his third straight major, he found himself in danger of missing the cut for the first time in a major.



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