At age 46 and on the down slope of his career, you'd be hard-pressed to find too many calling Phil Mickelson a favorite heading into this year's Open Championship. Sure, he'd won this tournament just three years earlier — but Mickelson had missed the cut twice in both previous major championships in 2016. Add to that he's now settled off-course issues with the SEC's insider trading probe, spectacular recent play from the game's younger stars, and the fact that Mickelson hasn't won since taking home is first Claret Jug in 2013? No, this wasn't supposed to happen.
But in recent years, age hasn't been much more than a number at the Open Championship. And in near-perfect scoring conditions in Ayrshire, Mickelson was exactly that himself. Known for his more-than-aggressive nature over the course of his career, Phil reigned back the driver to set up approaches to Royal Troon's minuscule greens -- hitting 79 percent of his fairways and 89 percent of greens en route to a mistake-free 8-under-par 63.
He was just a few inches from having history all to his own, but Mickelson probably won't spend too much time resting on the laurels of today's 8-under 63. There's three-quarters of a golf tournament left to play, and he'll have an opportunity tomorrow to really give himself some cushion heading into the weekend.
Few have even been able to approach that fabled "62" number in a major championship, and that last lip-out will obviously stick with him for a bit through the evening -- he mentioned almost breaking down to tears at the moment he saw the replay after the round.
But there's a golf tournament -- arguably the world's most prestigious — to be won. Mickelson has a great chance to put things almost out of reach for younger stars like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, who had likely left the golf course feeling pretty decent about rounds of 2-under and even par, respectively, earlier in the day.
Royal Troon's known for its first eight holes that generally play downwind and are very scoreable for the world's best players -- and then the dark turn that things take on the way in. The course's back nine is much more difficult than the opening nine, and a good reason for that has to do with the strong Scottish coastal winds. The back-nine holes generally offer far more golf shots into the wind or with crosswinds than the opening holes, and that's what led early-wave players this morning to run out to early low numbers on the front and then give strokes back coming up. For Phil and others on the afternoon wave, that didn't happen Troon's famous winds died down to almost nothing by Mickelson's back nine — allowing him an opportunity to take his round far deeper into red numbers than those in the morning.
Rain is expected all day at Troon tomorrow, but afternoon winds are expected to be blowing twice as fast as what the morning wave will see. That means another opportunity for Mickelson to stretch out his lead. If he's able to go out and post a 66 or 67, the world's best four players at the moment would have their work cut out for them to even stay remotely in contention heading to the weekend.
There's plenty of other big names in contention after the first day outside of Mickelson, too. Phil sits three clear of Patrick Reed and Martin Kaymer, and four ahead of a host of other familiar names, such as Justin Thomas, Steve Stricker, Keegan Bradley and Zach Johnson. Golf Twitter's pick of Sergio Garcia looks just fine after one round, sitting 5 behind the leader after firing an opening round 3-under 68. Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy turned some of the better early morning rounds with 2-under 69s, sitting six back of Mickelson heading into tomorrow.
The three biggest betting favorites were among the stars that struggled most on Thursday. Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth sit in a tie for 51st after even-par opening rounds, and top-ranked Jason Day sits in a tie for 94th after struggling to a first-round 73.
Here's how the leaderboard looks heading into tomorrow at Troon.
* * *