After finally ending a lengthy win drought last season at the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, Phil Mickelson’s play the remainder of the year wasn’t inspiring, to say the least. He managed just one top 10 in his final 16 starts, and failed to crack the top 20 in any of the four majors. His no-show at the Ryder Cup, coupled with his so-so play at “The Match,” didn’t lead anyone to believe he was close to contending again anytime soon.
But in typical “what will I do next?” Mickelson fashion, the five-time major champion opened 2019 with a bang on Thursday at the Desert Classic, carding a scintillating 12-under 60 at La Quinta Country Club. It’s his career-low score to par, and it has given him a four-shot cushion wth 54 holes left to play.
The most surprised person of all? Mickelson himself.
“I really didn’t think this would be a day I was going to go low,” said Mickelson, who made 10 birdies and an eagle in the light rainy conditions in Palm Springs. “I came in with very low expectations because I haven’t had the time to practice and prepare. I felt like all areas were okay, you never really know until you get out and play and compete.
“The good thing was is I made a couple of bad swings and I got away with them. And I putted phenomenal.”
While he had to birdie the last just to shoot 60, Mickelson did flirt with 59 thanks to four birdies on his first five holes on the back nine, reaching 10-under par at the 14th. A par at the par-3 15th reduced his sub-60 chances significantly, but another birdie at 16 at least gave him the opportunity to birdie the final two holes, but he only managed to make one.
This is not the first time Mickelson has been close to shooting 59 before. He famously lipped out a birdie putt on the ninth hole for 59 in the opening round of the 2013 Waste Management Phoenix Open, settling for an 11-under 60 and eventually winning the event. He can only hope this week ends in similar fashion.
“On 16 I was aware [of 59],” Mickelson said. “I was giving it all I had. I had a good chance on 17, hit a nice tee shot, but had about 18 feet left [for birdie]. I should have hit that closer, still had a good chance to make that putt.”
A 59 would have made Mickelson the 11th player in PGA Tour history to card a sub-60 round, and the second to do it at La Quinta. Adam Hadwin shot his 59 there in 2017 and went on to finish second, which made him the fifth player to accomplish the feat and not win in the same week. Brandt Snedeker most recently shot 59 last August at the Wyndham Championship, which he did go on to win.
Despite admitting he felt a little rust pre-round on Twitter, Mickelson showed no signs of it, something he attributed to his excitement level to compete.
“My fresh attitude after having a few months after allowed me to be really focused throughout the round and focus on each shot very clearly and kind of have a good picture of the shot I wanted to hit as well as where I wanted to miss it when I did miss it. And that was very helpful today.”
Mickelson will look to keep it rolling on Friday at the Nicklaus Tournament Course, where he’ll go off the 10th tee alongside Aaron Wise at 11:40 a.m. ET. He knows backing up a career round like this won’t be easy.
“It’s very difficult to start a round and go low like this and then follow it up because the expectations are anything short of a victory is a failure. And yet we have three full rounds on some challenging golf courses with a lot of potential birdies. So it’s a tough position to be in, but it’s one that I thoroughly enjoy.”