BETHESDA, Md. – It's rare anytime a round of 74 makes a pro golfer smile.
Especially Phil Mickelson.
And on his birthday, no less.
"This actually turned out to be a great day," Mickelson said, "because I played horrific."
That's no exaggeration. The lefthander saw more of the rough than some course mowers did getting the Congressional layout ready earlier this week. He hit only five of 14 fairways and eight of 18 greens, yet somehow salvaged a 3-over round Thursday that left him nine strokes behind leader and opening-round playing partner Rory McIlory.
The Northern Irishman's 65 marked the third time that McIlroy, just 22, has gone that low in a major. Mickelson, who's 41 and has been playing more than two decades, has managed to go that low in a major just twice. And in an odd twist, Mickelson also wound up playing alongside first-round leader Colin Montgomerie in 1997, the last time the U.S. Open was played at this course. He shot 75 that day.
"It was fun to watch," Mickelson said, referring to McIlroy's round, "although I didn't see much of it."
That's because he had enough trouble keeping an eye on his own golf ball. Mickelson dunked his first shot of the day into a pond at the par-3 10th, then blocked the first of several 2-iron tee shots way left of the fairway at No. 14. The ball landed deep enough into the rough that Mickelson quickly hit a provisional before finding the original ball.
At No. 16, another of Mickelson's tee shots settled into such gnarly rough down the left side that he punched out using a driver. At No. 3, yet another wayward tee shot forced him to play his next shot off a cart path.
"A lot of times, this happens for me when I take a week off before a major," Mickelson said. "I come out and play tight and swing tentative. ...
"I don't normally play four days perfectly, so this was my bad round and, hopefully, I'll get it turned around tomorrow. I get an early tee time. I'll have a course in good shape for the morning and see if I can come out with a low score."
Mickelson's buoyant mood surely had something to do with the presence of his wife, Amy, who is recovering from a bout with breast cancer. She has begun traveling with her husband again, at least at major events. And right after the round, the two sat down at a table in the clubhouse at Congressional alongside Dustin Johnson, the third member of Mickelson's group, and got a headstart on his birthday celebration with a couple of mini-burgers.
Considering how much work he'd already done to get there, he had plenty of reasons to smile.
"To be able to shoot what I did from where I did," Mickelson said, "I'll gladly take it."