Phil Mickelson has a good day at U.S. Open, and with insider trading investigation

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Mickelson’s in the hunt at Pinehurst hours after the Times backtracks on a story implicating him in an insider-trading probe. Lefty’s not totally in the clear -- at the Open or for ‘well-timed trades’ that earned him $1 million -- but he’ll take it.

If Phil Mickelson were bothered by suggestions that he had anything to do with insider-trading allegations related to Clorox and involving sports gambler Billy Walters and billionaire investor Carl Icahn, he did not show it when he made birdie on his first hole of this week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

No wonder, since the New York Times on Wednesday essentially refuted earlier reports that placed Mickelson under suspicion for trading Clorox shares based on data gleaned from Icahn. The story blamed sources for providing the Times with incorrect information and conceded that Mickelson’s links to the federal probe were "weaker than previously reported."

"Although Mr. Icahn and Mr. Walters remain under investigation over Clorox, the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission have found no evidence that Mr. Mickelson traded Clorox shares," the Times story said. "The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to The Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake."

Federal authorities have no current plans to charge Mickelson with any criminal wrongdoing, though he and Walters, the story continued, are still under scrutiny for "separate well-timed trades" they placed in Dean Foods in 2012 before the company’s stock took off. Lefty, who has maintained his innocence since the story broke, earned some $1 million in those trades, according to the Times.

"That’s great news for Phil Mickelson," ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said early into the network’s coverage of this week’s grand slam event. "If that confirms it, he wasn’t burdened by the accusation."

No kidding.

Lefty, who began his quest for his first U.S. Open victory with a four on the 10th on Thursday, gave the hole respect, playing the 608-yarder as a three-shot challenge. After sticking a wedge close, he had a gimme to kickstart his week.

Another stiffed approach shot on 14 yielded another birdie for the owner of the record for U.S. Open runner-up finishes (six). As Mickelson walked up to his ball, just off the green on the 528-yard par-5 fifth with his second shot, he tipped his cap and gave the thumbs-up to the Phil-friendly crowd that cheered lustily for this week’s sentimental favorite.

"Phil Mickelson enjoys the embrace of fans wherever he goes," intoned ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. "If they could will him to this championship, they would."

A solid two-putt that gave Mickelson his third birdie of the day and put him at 2-under, just one back of Matt Kuchar, earned another rousing ovation from the spectators. When Kuchar bogeyed the 16th, Phil was part of a logjam, with Kuchar, Kevin Na and Graeme McDowell, atop the leaderboard.

As for what was going on outside the ropes for the world’s 11th-ranked player, the Times article noted that FBI agents, employing "unusually aggressive tactics," approached Mickelson twice "out of the blue," at an airport and again on a golf course at a tournament, the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, two weeks ago.

Talk about aggressive. After making a bogey on the par-3 sixth, Mickelson dared go where few others did on the 427-yard par-4 seventh. With most players using clubs other than driver, Mickelson took his big dog out and blasted his tee shot over the first bunker, leaving a short iron into the green from 116 yards out.

Unfortunately, his birdie putt slid by the hole, and a one-handed yanked tee shot flew way wide right of the eighth fairway into a sandy area, yielding a bogey. That dropped Mickelson back to even-par, and when an overcooked 8-iron on the par-3 ninth led to a three, he exited the course with a level 70 and two shots back of early clubhouse leaders Na and McDowell.

All in all, not a bad day, inside and outside the ropes, for the guy desperate to lift that U.S. Open trophy come Sunday night.

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