Phil Mickelson keeps saying how much he loves playing with Tiger Woods. He shot 63 at the Deutsche Bank Championship to prove it.
In a feature grouping of the top three players in the world ranking, Mickelson turned in the star performance Friday morning with a 28 that allowed him to consider — but only briefly — another shot at 59.
By the end of the day, when he played a risky shot from deep in the trees on his final hole to salvage bogey, he was happy to be in the lead. Mickelson had a one-shot lead over Kevin Stadler among early starters.
"What Phil did today was pretty impressive," Woods said after a 68 that only seemed worse considering the company he kept.
Masters champion Adam Scott, rounding out the 1-2-3 pairing, struggled to a 73 and joked later that he rolled out of the wrong side of the bed.
Mickelson did everything right.
He started his round on the TPC Boston by making birdie putts of 20 feet on No. 10 and 30 feet on No. 11. He ended the front nine with five straight birdies, only the second nine-hole score of 28 on the PGA Tour this year. And even after a bogey from the bunker on No. 1, he hit a 6-iron from 213 yards that settled just more than a foot away for eagle on the next hole. That put him at 8 under for his round with seven holes to play.
"It was a good start," Mickelson said. "I got off to a great front nine and somewhat stalled on the back. But after shooting 7 under the first nine, it was going to be a good round as long as I didn't mess it up."
He tried. Mickelson ended his brilliant round with two words: "Oh, no." He hit a snap-hook off the ninth tee, so far right that it missed the fairway by some 40 yards and went so deep in the woods that fans could barely see Mickelson ducking and weaving through the branches to find his ball.
He decided against a one-shot penalty drop out of the lateral hazard, fearing the slope would roll the ball too close to the branches and restrict his swing.
"Just give me an 8- or a 9-iron," he told his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay. He was ready to hack away when his caddie reminded him the gallery was still in the way. Choking well up the grip, flattening the swing to avoid limbs, Mickelson chopped it out to the rough and still had 210 yards left. He knocked that one on the green and two-putted for his bogey and a 63.
It was at the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2007 when Mickelson first got over the mental hurdle of playing with Woods, his longtime nemesis. He said swing coach Butch Harmon, who formerly worked with Woods, gave him a few tips about playing with the world's No. 1 player that relaxed Mickelson.
In the 15 rounds they have played together since, Mickelson has a 9-5-1 advantage in posting the lower score. He has shot the better score all five times in the final round, three of those leading to wins.
Mickelson had said Woods "brings out the best in me" on Thursday after his pro-am round. When asked about that again after his 63, Lefty smiled and said, "After today, it's hard to think any differently."
Woods referred to the course as "gettable," the same description he gave of Muirfield when Mickelson shot 66 on the final day to win the British Open, considered one of the great closing rounds in a major. That was the case, though. The TPC Boston was soft enough — and the fairways wide enough — to allow some low numbers.
Hunter Mahan opened with a 65, while PGA champion Jason Dufner, Lee Westwood and Harris English were among those at 66.
Woods said his back felt fine, and there were no outward indications he was in any pain. The only thing that hurt was not hitting enough shots close for birdie chances, and missing a few at the end. Woods had a 6-foot birdie putt on the seventh and a downhill birdie putt from about 12 feet on his last hole, missing both of them.
"The back is good," Woods said. "Unfortunately, I didn't give myself a whole lot of looks."
It was another great start for Mickelson, who missed a 59 by a fraction of an inch this year at the Phoenix Open. And the timing could not have been better.
Even though the majors are over, and Mickelson added a big one at the British Open, the next month is a great chance for him. For all his greatness over the last two decades — 42 career wins on the PGA Tour, five majors and a spot in the Hall of Fame — he came along at the wrong time. Mickelson has never been player of the year, No. 1 in the world or tops on the PGA Tour money list. And he hasn't won the FedEx Cup, now in its seventh year.
This might be his best chance. Mickelson feels great, though at 43 he was reminded he wasn't getting any younger when he went home to San Diego last week to take his oldest daughter to high school.
With two wins — one a major — and a runner-up in the U.S. Open, another win at a FedEx Cup playoff event might be enough to get voted PGA Tour player of the year. Woods has five wins, all of them strong, but failed to win a major.
"If I finish off with one or two wins this year, and win the FedEx Cup, I think that would be enough to get the player of the year," he said. "My game clicked again last week, and I feel like these next three weeks I'm going to play very well. I can just feel it. You can just tell sometimes. The game feels sharp. And mentally, I have a lot of energy and I'm able to focus clearly. And that's usually when you play well."