Mickelson finds his '04 groove

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- In all those years when Phil Mickelson wasn't winning majors, the book on him said that he fell in love with all the things he could do to a golf ball. Draw, fade, long, short, high, soft -- Mickelson could do everything but get his ball in the hole quicker than everyone else.

Then, at the 2004 Masters, came the transformation. Like a Frank Tanana, who learned how to pitch without having to throw gas, Mickelson took something off the ball. He hit a soft cut off the tee. He sacrificed 25 yards in length, but Lefty also took the right side of the golf course out of play. Safely in the fairway, he could go after the pins.

The rest, after that 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole and the World's Lowest Leap, was history. Mickelson donned his green jacket.

You would think that Mickelson would have employed that strategy again in the ensuing 16 months. But he didn't. Not until he arrived at Baltusrol Golf Club and teed off at 1:10 p.m. Thursday did Mickelson dust off the soft cut.

"There are a lot of good scores, don't get me wrong, and I'm very happy to be one of them," Mickelson said. "But it feels a little bit different. It wasn't quite as stressful a round. I was able to keep the ball in play and hit a lot of greens in regulation and was able to make a few putts."

All together now: Duh!

Mickelson hit 10 of 14 fairways. He hit 14 greens in regulation. He made three birdie bombs of at least 30 feet in length. And with his 3-under 67, he's tied for the first-round lead of the 87th PGA Championship.

Joining Mickelson at the top of the leaderboard are Stephen Ames, Rory Sabbatini, Stuart Appleby, Trevor Immelman and Ben Curtis, fine golfers and surely gentlemen in their own right. They also live in a zip code nowhere near the top of the Official World Golf Rankings. Appleby (No. 26) and Ames (No. 40) are the only members of the group in the top 40.

The PGA commenced on the kind of day that gives summer a bad name. In air as thick as Jose Maria Olazabal's accent, thunderstorms threatened to arrive but never did. In that, they had much in common with Tiger Woods, who took this opportunity to imitate the Harry Potter character, He-Who-Must-Not-Hit-A-Fairway.

Starting on No. 10, Woods kept it on the short grass only once on the back nine, made the turn in 39 and struggled home with a 75. After making his lone birdie of the day at his penultimate hole, No. 8, Woods made a sweeping doff of his cap to acknowledge the applause and mock his own efforts.

Yes, Woods opened the 2005 Masters, the one he won, with a 74. But Woods finished the first round at Augusta National tied for 29th. He finished this one tied for 113th.

"If you're looking for me to shed a tear, it's not going to happen," said Mickelson, eliciting a big laugh. "I believe, as I think we all do, that come Sunday his name will find its way up on top there."

The name Mickelson is already there, thanks to his rediscovered stratagem. Obviously, not every golf course is set up right-to-left. In fact, not every shot at Baltusrol welcomes the left-handed fade. Mickelson discovered how narrow the margin is at the 482-yard sixth hole.

"That drive that I hit probably would have been in the fairway, but I pulled it a touch and it clipped the tree, caught a limb and fell straight down," Mickelson said. Distance traveled: 157 yards. He played his second down the adjacent 17th fairway, lofted an L-wedge 92 yards over the heads of the gallery, over the trees, to five feet away, and missed the par putt.

"There's three holes out here where my fade is very difficult to hit," Mickelson said. "No. 6, five is one of them, and 15. It's not very difficult, it's just that I'm going to come very close to those trees. It sets up for a left-to-right shot and I'm trying to play it a little right-to-left."

For all the right-to-left there is at Augusta National -- Nos. 2, 5, 9, 10, 11 and 13 -- there is at least one holdout.

"[At] last year's Masters, I hit every shot right-to-left," Mickelson said. "When I'd get to the 15th hole and try to turn it over [left-to-right], I'd miss that fairway every time left. I decided this week when I get to a couple holes where I have to draw it, I'm not going to do it. I'll hit it straight and hopefully catch the left side of the fairway."

Last season, Mickelson finished second in the U.S. Open, one stroke out of the playoff at the British Open, and two strokes out of the playoff at the PGA. An optimist would say he had unlocked the last, most difficult door to his potential. But he hasn't contended in any major -- or, for that matter, any tournament -- this year since he opened with a 69 at Augusta.

He feels confident at Baltusrol, playing before the New York-area fans who adopted him at Bethpage Black during the 2002 U.S. Open and cheered for him again last year at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

Mickelson took pains to say the tournament is far from over. With late rallies, a couple of other top-10 players, Retief Goosen (68) and Vijay Singh (70) put themselves in contention Thursday.

But it is Mickelson who, employing a strategy proven to work, shares the lead. Maybe, just maybe, he'll use it for three more rounds.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.