Cook: You've got to love effort injured Mickelson gave

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Phil Mickelson holds his injured wrist in the first day of the U.S. Open.
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Excerpts from Phil Mickelson's press conference after his opening round at the U.S. Open
Playing through pain
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PG golf Writer Gerry Dulac wraps up Day One developments at Oakmont yesterday.

It was early in Phil Mickelson's round yesterday when the two lovely ladies, motherly types, got all of his attention coming off of the No. 14 tee box, his fifth hole of the U.S. Open. "Love ya, Phil!" the women fairly screamed, forcing a big-time Mickelson blush. You have to understand the man is the most popular player at Oakmont Country Club this week, not so much because he's ranked No. 2 in the world behind the great Tiger Woods, but because he actually acknowledges the paying customers with a nod, a wave or that constant smile he has as he makes his way around a golf course. This time, Mickelson found the strength to give the ladies a thumb's up sign. With his bum left wrist, no less.

The significance of that little gesture wouldn't become clear for some time, not until after Mickelson completed his marathon 51/2-hour round, the most amazing round of Day 1 at the Open.

At that No. 14 tee box, it didn't seem likely Mickelson would be able to last the day. He already had bogeyed No. 11, in large part, because he couldn't properly swing his club through the deep rough on his second shot, letting go with his left hand on contact with the ball so as not to jar his bad wrist, the most analyzed body part in sports this week.

As Mickelson bogeyed Nos. 16 and 18 to go 3 over for nine holes, it hurt to watch him. Maybe not as much as on No. 18 at Winged Foot on Sunday at the 2006 U.S. Open when he blew the tournament and muttered, "I'm such an idiot." But a lot.

Certainly, after Mickelson bogeyed No. 1 only two questions seemed pertinent: Why is he doing this to himself? Why not pick up, call it a day and a tournament and make sure that wrist is ready for the next major, the British Open, in five weeks?

Come on, don't try to tell me you weren't wondering the same things. It's fair to think Mickelson had those thoughts. On the bridge walkway between the 18th green and the No. 1 tee box, he had told the man to whom he has entrusted care of his wrist, masseur Jim Weathers, "Stay close," just in case the pain became too intense.

But it never did.

At least Mickelson never gave in to it.

On a day when only two golfers put up red numbers, Mickelson finished with eight consecutive pars for a 4-over 74. It hardly matters that he trails leader Nick Dougherty (68) by six strokes and Angel Cabrera (69) by five. They won't be around come Sunday. What's significant is Mickelson kept Woods (71) in sight and No. 3-ranked Jim Furyk (71).

One thumb's up hardly seems like enough for that kind of special effort.

"I fought the last eight holes to keep me in it," Mickelson said afterward. "I just need one good round tomorrow to get me in it for the weekend."

Furyk, among many, was impressed after playing with Mickelson and seeing his surprising work up close and personal.

"He hung in there very well," he said. "He probably didn't hit the ball anywhere near what he liked, but he hung in there and got the ball in the hole and did what he needed to do to stay around."

It's nice to report Mickelson's wrist, damaged in the Oakmont rough late in May during his practice preparation, held up. That's the story of this Open so far, easily. As Furyk put it, "He went to fix his wrist brace on our first tee on No. 10 and I heard 50 clicks of cameras. It was a little bit of a circus out there."

Although Mickelson's wrist was -- quoting him now -- "sore and aggravating and annoying," that wasn't his big problem. It was the lack of pre-tournament work that he considers so crucial to his success. He had to withdraw on the first day of the Memorial May 31 after 11 holes and couldn't swing a club even a week ago.

"I felt rusty," Mickelson said. "I hit some hybrids off the tee to try to get it in play and missed the fairway more than I had been. That's what was difficult."

Mickelson hit just 5 of 14 fairways, making his round that much more remarkable. That percentage just has to improve in Round 2 this morning. That's Mickelson's thinking, anyway.

"I believe I'll get better as the week goes on. I think my ball-striking will get sharper."

Mickelson wouldn't talk about winning the Open Tuesday when he was so unsure of his wrist and he wouldn't bite on those questions yesterday. Let's be real here; that possibility still seems unlikely. But he did say, "I think I'm still below the winning score. I don't think I'm in a position where I have to make birdies. I'll just keep making pars."

It's no wonder Mickelson was practically giddy as he walked off the No. 9 green with the burly Weathers, a former Green Beret, who looks as if he could take over for Alan Faneca as the Steelers' left guard next season. "Look, Phil needs a bodyguard," a fan said. Mickelson turned on a dime and flashed that famous grin. "I need him to protect me from you," he told the man, giving him and those around him an Open moment to remember.

You know better than that.

Mickelson doesn't need any protection from the Oakmont crowd.

The people love him and, on this day, respected him more than ever.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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