Commentary

Mickelson proves father knows best

Updated: June 14, 2013, 3:09 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ARDMORE, Pa. -- Phil Mickelson stepped off his private jet at 3:30-ish Thursday morning, was sacked out in the Merion Golf Club driving range parking lot at 5:30-ish and was in trouble on his opening hole by 7:30-ish.

Welcome to Lefty's U.S. Open, which is unlike anybody else's U.S. Open. That's because Mickelson, who leads this thing with a 3-under-par 67, might win Father of the Year and a major all in the same week.

Generally speaking, not many players prep for a U.S. Open by attending their daughter's eighth-grade graduation ceremony. In California. Less than 12 hours before their 7:11 a.m. Thursday tee time.

But Mickelson isn't like you and me. He owns a Gulfstream V. The flight attendant isn't handing him a tiny bag of trail mix and a glass of tepid water. He lives large.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson finished strong, with two birdies over his final four holes.

But here's the thing about Phil: He also lives small. He understands that life is a series of everyday events that add up to something substantial. No way was he going to miss one of those events: daughter Amanda's speech at her eighth-grade commencement ceremony.

Thirteen-year-old Amanda tried to talk him out of it. "It's fine," she told him. "Stay -- it's the U.S. Open. I know how much you care about it."

Kids. Didn't she remember what her old man was going to do for her at the 1999 U.S. Open?

Wife Amy was expecting any moment. Phil was in contention but vowed to bolt Pinehurst No. 2 the minute his beeper (yes, a beeper) went off. Didn't matter if he was 10 strokes ahead or behind -- he was going to withdraw.

Instead, Amy held on, Phil finished second to Payne Stewart and little Amanda Brynn Mickelson was born the next day.

So Mickelson has a history of putting family over fairways. He reminded Amanda of that when she said it was OK for him to skip the ceremony.

"I told her I want to be there," he said. "I don't want to miss that. I don't want to miss her speech. I don't want to miss her graduation."

Good for him. After all, there will be other Opens, but his oldest child will have only that one speech at that one eighth-grade farewell.

As it turns out, Mickelson didn't miss the speech on Wednesday and he didn't miss much on Thursday, except sleep. He shot that 67, hit 11 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens and had two par- (and round-) saving putts of the 6- to 8-feet variety on back-to-back holes.

"He's had a crazy last 24 hours," said playing partner Keegan Bradley, who shot 77 on a full-night's rest.

Mickelson left the Philadelphia area Monday and returned here in the darkness of early Thursday morning. He had to have jet lag. Sleep lag. And golf lag.

His caddie, Jim Mackay, put in 10 hours of prep work on Tuesday. That helps. But it isn't the same as Mickelson being here, playing practice holes here, getting eight hours of sleep here, right?

But Mickelson practiced at his backyard complex Wednesday and also played at La Jolla Country Club in the San Diego area. Then he played dad.

"She did a great job," said Mickelson of Amanda's speech. "And she even quoted Ron Burgundy, so it was funny."

The ceremony was at 6 p.m. PT. He was on the plane by 8 p.m. and landed near Philly at 3:30 a.m. ET.

"This is not out of the ordinary," said Mickelson. "I do this about six, 10 times a year where I fly back east [on a] red-eye, play some outing and then come home."

But this isn't a corporate outing in which you yuk it up with some execs and then head for the airport. It's the U.S. Open, where Mickelson has finished second five times, a record for someone who has never won it. Phil and the Open are known for their fistfights -- with the Open winning on knockouts.

Didn't matter. Mickelson said he wasn't stressing about leaving Merion earlier in the week, when rains pretty much washed out his Monday. By then, he already had his plan in place. And on the plane back to Pennsylvania, he read through his course scouting-report notes (he had been to Merion in the weeks prior to the Open), studied his greens charts, thought through the possible pin placements.

"It might be abnormal, but it actually worked out really well," he said.

Shortly after 7 a.m., Mickelson, dressed in all black, stepped to the No. 11 tee box (his first hole of the day). Course marshals were already turning away fans hoping to squeeze into the adjacent grandstand.

"Welcome back," yelled someone from the grandstand. "Congratulations."

Then a tournament official stepped to a tee-side microphone.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the 7:11 starting time. Please welcome, from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., Phil Mickelson."

So, of course, Mickelson three-putted the hole for an opening bogey. It would be his only bogey of the day. He finished with his lowest U.S. Open opening round (in relation to par) since 1999.

Mickelson is one stroke behind England's Luke Donald, and tied with Masters winner Adam Scott, but Mickelson is the leader in the clubhouse. Donald is 4-under through 13 holes and Scott 3-under through 11 after play was suspended by more bad weather.

Mickelson did it with five wedges and no driver in his bag. He did it with the help of energy drinks and a power nap taken during a 3½-hour morning rain delay. He did it on adrenaline.

"Good start," said Mickelson.

A good ending would be Mickelson winning his first Open. You know what we'd call it?

Amanda's graduation present.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter