MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Phil Mickelson wasted no time firing up fans with birdies on the opening two holes. Then came a sliced tee shot into the water and a nearly four-putt green. He birdied two of the last three holes.
A typical round for one of golf’s most unpredictable stars.
Returning to work for the first time since disclosing last month that his wife has breast cancer, Mickelson got off to a solid start in the St. Jude Classic with a 2-under 68 that left him two shots behind the early leaders Thursday. He wore a pink ribbon stitched into the side of his white cap and at times looked fatigued.
Jose Maria Olazabal, a two-time Masters champion recently elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame, was the day’s surprise. Still coping with arthritis pain, the Spaniard shot a 66 and was tied for the lead with Mathias Gronberg and Chris Stroud.
Under heavy clouds that brought brief showers midway through his round, Mickelson was easy to spot because of the some 750 fans following him — one man dressed all in pink.
Mickelson, however, was not the only one making a comeback. John Daly played his first PGA Tour event since serving a six-month suspension for off-course activities that brought the game so many unwanted headlines and photos.
He played in the afternoon and opened with eight pars until a birdie at No. 9 to make the turn at 1-under 34.
Mickelson openly shared his emotions and fears before the tournament. He was more guarded after his round Thursday, sticking mainly to his golf and the tropical vacation after the U.S. Open a week before Amy has surgery and begins treatment.
“It wasn’t a great round, but it was a good start,” Mickelson said. “It was fun to play a little bit.”
He was particularly pleased with his group — three-time major winner Padraig Harrington and Cameron Beckman. They chatted between shots, although his talk with Harrington before the round might have been the most meaningful.
Harrington won his first two PGA Tour events in 2005 while his father battled cancer. He missed the British Open that summer at St. Andrews when his father died.
“I know when my dad had cancer, the easiest time was on the golf course because you don’t have to answer any questions,” Harrington said. “You don’t have to explain yourself on the golf course. You’ve got to remember — we’re quite proficient at dealing with that little white golf ball, not quite as good about explaining our emotions.”
Mickelson spent seven hours practising at Bethpage on Tuesday, then flew to Memphis for a news conference and a pro-am round. He rose at dawn Thursday for his first round on a course he has not played in eight years. But he said he felt fine, and had all afternoon and Friday morning to rest.
He could not have scripted a better start to his round, opening with an approach to five feet for birdie and holing a 25-foot birdie putt on the next hole, the par-3 11th.