A Return Of The Notorious Weather, And Mickelson

Friday, February 9th 2007, 7:10 am
By: News On 6

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ Traditional headgear gave way to wool caps pulled over their ears. The cold wind was so fierce that it toppled a tree on the 17th hole at Spyglass Hill and bent flags sideways at Pebble Beach.

The opening round brought back memories of the notorious weather at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

It also might have marked the return of Phil Mickelson.

Lefty has been nowhere near the top of a leaderboard since he was one shot ahead with one hole to play at the U.S. Open last summer. He bungled his way to a double bogey at Winged Foot, finished his season in September by going 0-4-1 at the Ryder Cup, and didn't exactly set golf afire in his first three tournaments of 2007.

But he always saw progress. And on Thursday, he finally saw some results.

Mickelson ran off five birdies in six-hole stretch at Poppy Hills, then finished his round of 7-under 65 with a 4-iron from 230 yards into 18 feet for eagle on the ninth hole to tie for the lead with Nick Watney and 27-year-old rookie John Mallinger.

``I'm off to a good start,'' he said.

Mallinger had the best start of all, and not only because of three birdies measuring a combined 100 feet to start his round. When the wind is blowing this hard, Pebble Beach is the worst place to be. With half of the holes exposed to the Pacific Ocean, nothing in the way to stop the wind, it produced the highest scoring average of the three courses at nearly 75.

Mallinger, however, started in the cool calm of the morning, and on the 10th hole. He didn't feel much wind until he had only five holes remaining in his round, and he made it through the tough eighth and ninth holes with pars for his 65.

``I got 14 holes with good weather,'' Mallinger said. ``Those are where you make your birdies, so when you've got good weather, you've got an advantage.''

He should clarify ``good'' in this case, because sunshine has graced this picturesque peninsula the last six years. It was good for 14 holes because the flags weren't bending sideways, the clouds had not released the rain and it didn't feel like winter.

``It was beneficial,'' he said.

Watney was over at Poppy Hills, the course with five par 5s and the only course Thursday that played under par (71.73). His only challenge was living up to the expectations of his amateur partner, Jerry Chang, who hasn't been to this tournament since 2002 when he played with his best friend from Stanford _ a guy named Tiger Woods.

``My friends told me I had no chance to make an impression,'' Watney said. ``But Jerry told me he upgraded his pro.''

Watney played the part, his only blemish a 2 1/2-foot par putt that took a hop and stayed out of the hole.

Over at Spyglass, Jim Furyk played his best golf in the worst conditions. His 2-under start was wiped out by a double bogey from two bunkers on the sixth hole, and he was even when the trees began to shake. Then he made five birdies on the back nine.

``I'm glad I got through there,'' he said.

The name that got everyone's attention was Mickelson.

It is not unusual for the three-time major winner to shut it down at the end of the year, only this break took on a new dimension because of the collapse at Winged Foot, and the paltry showing at the Ryder Cup.

Mickelson was refreshed. He was ready. And he was rusty.

He says his driving off the tee has never been better, but it took a while for the rest of his game to catch up. Shoddy iron play at the Bob Hope Classic and Buick Invitational left him in the middle of the pack. Poor putting in Phoenix gave him the weekend off.

``I didn't think it would take three tournaments to get to where I wanted to be,'' he said. ``But each tournament, I saw progress.''

He spent the last five days working on the short stick, and it paid off Thursday.

``You're not going to make them all,'' Mickelson said. ``But I started every putt on line with the right speed.''

Some of the putts were easy, such as the 3-footer on the 14th when he hit the flag with his 8-iron. But he also holed a 35-footer on the 13th, which he said was the ``longest putt I've made all year.''

It helps that he has won at Pebble Beach twice, the most recent in 2005 when he opened with a 62 at Spyglass Hill and was never serious challenged the rest of the way. His other victory was in 1998, and that was unusual. The first two rounds were played in February, the final round of a 54-hole event in August because of the weather.

But it's not just good vibes, because Mickelson is a past champion at every event he has played this year.

``I'm finally starting to play the way I expected to at the Hope,'' he said. ``I don't feel like I'm trying to get it back. I feel like it's progressing week to week.''

Mickelson got out of the celebrity rotation this year _ Bill Murray & Co. were at Spyglass _ meaning he will be at Pebble Beach on Friday when the weather is expected to worsen.

``I really can't wait to get into some tough weather,'' Mickelson said.