Phil Mickelson rides putter into contention at Muirfield as Rory McIlroy’s miseries worsen

Scott Halleran

Phil Mickelson looks comfortable and confident striding around Muirfield for a 69 while Rory McIlroy can’t seem, once again, to get out of his own way.

Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy began their opening round at Muirfield together but their games quickly diverged, with Lefty riding his eyes-only flat-stick secret to a 2-under 69 and the two-time major champ from Northern Ireland possibly putting his way out of the picture altogether.

Mickelson had observers tipping him to get off the British Open schneid, thanks to last week's Scottish Open victory and his effusive, pre-tourney confidence. His frustration with Thursday's course set-up and his final hole, a three-putt bogey on the 18th, however, was evident on a day when he posted four birdies and two bogeys to close just three shots back of early leader Zach Johnson.

"I got really lucky because I think the R&A was really worried about the score going too low and so they used some really funky pin placements," Mickelson told ESPN after his round. "They used some funny spots and about a third of every green has died it's so brown that I hit two perfect shots on 18, left it in the exact spot I wanted to leave it, and I ended up just trying to lag it and it still went way by."

As for McIlroy, the world No. 2 looked as lost on the links track as he conceded he was at last month’s U.S. Open. He could not find a fairway (just five in regulations) with yet another new Nike driver (a tweaked version of the Nike VR_S Covert), needed a GPS to locate his golf ball after poor chip shots and yanked putts left all day.

His pitch from the rough below the hole on No. 12, which hit the slope and rolled back at him, was indicative of McIlroy’s continuing woes, which earned him an 8-over 79 on Thursday.

Then there was his putt to the green at the 15th that dribbled into a bunker at the back of the green.

"I don’t understand at all. He’s a young man and he’s confused," legendary British TV commentator Peter Alliss said during ESPN’s broadcast, referring to McIlroy's struggles since changing from Titleist to Nike golf gear. "All this thing about this driver; go back to your old driver, put a bit of sticking plaster to the top so no one knows it’s your old driver. It’s happened since time began."

ESPN’s Paul Azinger noted that, after finishing T60 at last year’s Open Championship, McIlroy had played his way out of a mid-season funk to notch a PGA Championship, two additional PGA Tour events during the FedEx Cup series, money titles on the PGA and European Tours, and a mega-contract with Nike.

Now, the kid from Northern Ireland, who was supposed to give Tiger Woods a run for his money this season, scuffles just to make it to the weekend. Indeed, making the cut this week will be a Herculean task for the laboring Boy Wonder, who closed out an ugly day tied with nemesis Nick Faldo and just one stroke north of DFL in the morning wave.

"It’s been tough to watch," Azinger said. "He’s capable of turning it around but what's happening now ... is a little embarrassing."

More golf from SB Nation:

Tiger addresses injury concerns on eve of Open| Unhealthy Tiger will be toast, says Azinger

What makes a course links-style and how does it change a player's game?

Rhys, Garrick, and the 10 best names at the British Open

Phil says he's found his "putting secret," leaves driver at home

Rory opposes male-only Muirfield policy, Tiger avoids comment

Phil preps ridiculous backwards lob wedge shot at Muirfield (video)

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