- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — Sorry, but when I see Phil Mickelson toughing it out with a wrist support in the U.S. Open, well, I don’t exactly think of Curt Schilling and his bloody sock. Nor do I think of Willis Reed limping onto the court for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Or of Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after homering to win the ‘88 World Series opener. Or of Jack Youngblood playing in the Super Bowl on a broken leg.

Mostly, I think of the Pro Bowlers Tour. That elastic whatever-it-is that wraps around Mickelson’s left thumb and extends a few inches down his arm reminds me of something Dick Weber might have worn in the Showboat Invitational back in the day.

Not to accuse Lefty of showboating or anything.

After yesterday’s 4-over 74 at Oakmont, Mickelson is staring at a 7-10 split — trailing leader Nick Dougherty by six strokes with 54 achy holes to play. Phil’s spirit is certainly willing, but his flesh is still weak from that well-publicized mishap here two weeks ago. He was spraying shots left and right on his first nine, leaving them short and whacking them long, and spent far too much time in the weeds and bunkers. You can’t win the Open that way … unless you’re Happy Gilmore.

Besides, yesterday offered players a rare opportunity to do Oakmont some damage — or at least keep their scores around par. There aren’t many rounds like that in the Open, rounds where the course is temporarily defanged (read: the greens briefly softened) by a well-timed cloudburst. But a storm swept through the area late Wednesday afternoon, and its impact on the first round leader board was hard to miss. Dougherty and Angel Cabrera (69) broke 70, and Jose Maria Olazabal and Bubba Watson finished right on the number. A mob of 16, including Tiger Woods, was at 71.

That’s a pretty tame round for the Open — and it’s even more surprising given the gloomy advance notices Oakmont had gotten. Players were saying it was every bit as brutal as Winged Foot last year, and Geoff Ogilvy’s winning score there was, what, 5 over? Heck, Paddy Harrington said he’d be glad to take four 72s this week, go sit in the clubhouse and see if his 8-over total held up.

“I wouldn’t bet my house on it,” he added, “but I certainly think it’s got a chance.”

And it might still have a chance. Open courses can turn on you at any time — like Shinnecock did on Sunday in ‘04. They get drier and drier, the putting surfaces get faster and faster, and it gets harder and harder to keep shots on the greens.

But Round 1 at Oakmont was almost bloodshed-free. Sure, Sergio Garcia (79) took himself out of the tournament, and Retief Goosen (76), Colin Montgomerie (76) and Mickelson made things tough for themselves, but a bunch of players will tee it up today with a realistic chance to win. OK, a mathematical chance.

As for Woods, he continues to lead the most charmed of golfing lives. He had the good fortune of playing yesterday in the morning, when the conditions were more benign (just as he did at Bethpage in ‘02, the last time he won the Open).

“It’s as soft and receptive as you’re possibly going to have it,” he said.

(So soft and receptive that John Daly, had he qualified, probably could have gotten through the entire round without withdrawing.)

Poor, one-armed Lefty, on the other hand, had to slug it out in the afternoon — when the course, baked all day by the sun, was firmer. And how’s this for bad luck: Mickelson has to turn around and play again at 8:06 a.m. That’s not much time for his sprained wrist to rest. He would have been much better off with Tiger’s Thursday morning/Friday afternoon schedule.

Still, Phil isn’t ready to surrender. Granted, he didn’t have a single birdie yesterday, but he did close with eight straight pars (and was pleased to point it out to the media). Just as he got better as the first round went on, “I believe I’ll get better as the week goes on,” he said.

His struggles, he insisted, had less to do with his injury than with the fact that “I wasn’t able to play the last two weeks and prepare properly.” Specifically, he “didn’t hit my utility club [out of the rough] the way I needed to. I wouldn’t say my wrist is painful like it was before. Aggravating is probably a better word. It’s sore. It’s annoying.”

The way Mickelson looks at it, 4 over is still “below the winning score” — or rather, what figures to be the winning score. “It’s not like I have to make birdies [the next three days],” he said. “I just have to make pars.”

He could be right. Like Harrington said, nobody at Oakmont is going to hand you four 72s. Nobody at Oakmont is going to hand you anything.

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