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LA QUINTA, Calif. – Phil Mickelson was a bit lost in the middle of the fairway — and at his best in some rough spots in his season debut.
Lefty made birdie after driving into a fairway bunker on a short par 5, saved par twice with sensational flops after bad swings on par 3s, and set up an eagle chance — that turned into a three-putt par — with a high slice from an adjacent hole.
From the fairway Thursday in the Humana Challenge, he struggled with distance control on short irons, leaving many long putts and few quality birdie chances. All understandable for a player coming off a long layoff and a lengthy bout with flu-like symptoms.
"I felt a lot better," Mickelson said. "I took it easy on Monday and Tuesday. It was like Day 10, but I'm fine now. I'm 95 percent better."
His game was still a little queasy.
"My timing and rhythm was off a little bit," Mickelson said. "My putter was atrocious and I've been putting great, too. So, that was disappointing."
He settled for an even-par 72, leaving him nine strokes behind first-round leaders Jason Kokrak, Roberto Castro and James Hahn.
The 42-year-old Hall of Famer had three birdies, a bogey and a double bogey at La Quinta Country Club — one of three courses used in the pro-am event he won in 2002 and 2004. He was making his first start since tying for second in early November in the HSBC Champions in China, the only event he played after the Ryder Cup.
"When I'm not playing for a while, I really get excited to get back out and I was really amped up," Mickelson said. "I was nervous today and excited to play and maybe a little over-amped because again everything was quick — my rhythm, timing, everything."
That was apparent on the par-3 12th when he hit his tee shot short and left, leaving a 25-yard shot with a tall tree blocking his path.
Undaunted, he flashed a boyish grin, reached for his lob wedge, and hit a full-swing flop shot that climbed nearly straight up and over the tree and stopped 2 feet from the hole.
"That was one of my better wedges," Mickelson said. "But, as I was telling my partner, 'You hit it there as much as I do, eventually you're going to learn how to hit those shots.'"
He yelled "Fore left!" a second after hitting the tee shot on the 202-yard hole.
"It was just very bad timing," Mickelson said. "Quick from the top, lower body fast. Just a bad swing. I did the same thing on the next par 3 with the same club. Only it went the other way. I made par both times, though."
After the par save on 12, he hooked his drive so far right on the par-5 13th that he ended up in the rough on the adjacent 14th hole. And he pulled off another brilliant recovery shot, slicing a fairway wood high over trees and onto the green. However, his eagle try ran 12 feet past the cup and he three-putted for par.
"Gosh, I hit such a great 5-wood to 35 feet for eagle," Mickelson said. "To three-putt that is just, it was just a lot of rough stuff today."
Mickelson bogeyed the par-3 third, three-putting from the back fringe, and birdied the par-5 fifth after driving left into a fairway bunker and being forced to lay up. He made a double bogey on the par-4 10th after an aggressive drive over the trees went out of bounds.
"That hole has my number," Mickelson said. "This time, it hit a tree, hit the cart path, went out of bounds by a foot. So, that hole is just my nemesis."
He got one of the strokes back with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 11th, and got back to even par with a birdie on the par-4 18th, hitting an 8-iron from 168 yards to 3 feet.
"I hit a lot of fairways and was able to shake out an even-par round," Mickelson said. "As bad as that is, I've got a low round in me tomorrow, I think. It doesn't feel like it's far off."
Kokrak, Castro and Hahn shot 63.
Kokrak had two eagles and five birdies at La Quinta.
"I just tried to put it in the right spots, put it in the fairways," Kokrak said. "Out there, that's key."
Castro had nine birdies at PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Private Course, and Hahn had nine birdies on PGA West's Arnold Palmer Private Course.
"Chipped two in," Hahn said. "Hadn't done that since I was 9."
Russell Henley, the Sony Open winner Sunday in Hawaii in his first start as a PGA Tour member, had a 64 on the Nicklaus course. He's 32 under in his first five rounds this year.
"It was a perfect day," Henley said. "The weather is perfect. The greens were true. So, it's just trying to stay patient and let the birdies come to me."
Aaron Baddeley, Greg Chalmers and Doug LaBelle II matched Henley at 64. Baddeley played the Palmer course, and Chalmers and LaBelle opened on the Nicklaus course.
Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, had a 67 at La Quinta. The Canadian left-hander has missed 16 consecutive cuts and finished only one tournament — a tie for 70th in the AT&T National in July 2011 — in his last 28 events.
"I drove it well and putted well and everything was pretty good," Weir said.
FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker also had a 67 at La Quinta. He's the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 8.
DIVOTS: Mickelson is opening a stretch of five or six straight events, a run that will end at Riviera or the Match Play Championship. ... The tournament is the first of seven events this year with an expanded field because of the short season. There are 156 players this year instead of 144. ... Defending champion Mark Wilson shot a 77 at La Quinta.