Mickelson takes in ceremonial shots

76th Masters


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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- With the final tee time of the day, Phil Mickelson could have done anything with his Thursday morning.

Slept in late. Had breakfast on the veranda. Popped in a movie. Heck, he could have turned on the Golf Channel and watched a third of the field tee off before he had to leave the house to go to work.

Instead, he showed up at the Augusta National Golf Club at approximately 7:15 a.m., nearly seven hours before he would begin pursuit of his fourth green jacket, because he wanted to see three of the greatest champions in Masters history hit the ceremonial first tee shots.

There he was, with a brilliant morning sun filtering through the Georgia pines, watching from the first tee as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player -- 147 Masters and 13 green jackets among them -- reunited to officially commence the 76th edition of the tournament.

That's Mickelson.

Too bad more players aren't like him.

"I thought it was wonderful that he came out," Palmer said.

"I thought it was remarkable," Player said.

In a world filled with mechanical swings and, in many instances, the on-course demeanors to match, Mickelson is the tour's Will Smith, their breath of fresh air. He has been that way, almost to fault, through 40 PGA Tour victories and four major titles.

He smiles at the gallery, makes eye contact with the patrons and fist-bumps his way around the golf course. In other words, does everything most of the other PGA Tour players don't do, especially the one with 14 major championships.

So when he came to the first tee to watch the three Masters icons start the tournament at 7:40 a.m., wearing his green jacket, nobody should have been surprised.

He didn't want to miss the moment. In the end, he enhanced it.

"It was a really cool experience to come out early," Mickelson said. "It was worth getting up for to watch those three guys."

Palmer has been a ceremonial starter at Augusta since 2007. In '10, he was joined on the first tee by Nicklaus, though the role was accepted somewhat grudgingly by the Golden Bear. This was the first year that Player -- South Africa's most famous champion -- joined them as a ceremonial starter.

Which player had the longest tee shot?

"I don't think any of us can see that far," Nicklaus said. "We can hear them all land, though."

Mickelson was having a tough time seeing and hearing his tee shots land in the first round, unless they were rattling in the pines.

He shot 74, his second-highest opening round in 20 appearances at Augusta National. And, for the longest time, it appeared he should have just gone back to bed. Especially when he lost his tee shot in the pines left of the 10th fairway and made triple-bogey 7.

But Mickelson managed to scrape his way back with birdies on three of the final six holes, including a 15-footer at No. 18, to finish just seven shots off the lead.

"I was fortunate enough not to shoot myself out of the tournament," said Mickelson, who hit only six greens in regulation.

Mickelson has won three of the past seven Masters, and if he wins another he will tie Palmer and Woods for the second most green jackets behind Nicklaus (6).

He is not off to good start. At least, not on the scoreboard.

golf

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.


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