Looking to bring his focus back to his golf game and the U.S. Open next week, Phil Mickelson finished strong, shooting 3-under par 67 in the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The tournament was suspended because of darkness with 60 players sill on the TPC Southwind golf course. Thunderstorms in the Memphis area delayed the tournament 3 1/2 hours before golfers returned to play on Thursday afternoon.
Among the players who finished their round on Thursday, Ben Crane was the best, carding 7-under 63 for a 2-shot lead over Peter Malnati and Billy Horschel. Malnati finished his round, but Horschel still has two to go when play resumes Friday morning. There are five players tied at 4-under par, including Zach Johnson who still has three holes left to play in his first round.
Mickelson’s aim this week in Memphis was to tune up for next week’s U.S. Open in Pinehurst, NC, by focusing on finishing strong, and he did exactly that in his first round on Thursday at the St. Jude Classic. Languishing at even par heading into his 15th hole, he made birdies on three of the final four under windy conditions as the storm approached. “I just kind of had a solid round going and then I had a few short irons…that I hit close and was able to make the putts,” said Mickelson after his round, “Finishing the round the way I did, that’s exactly what I need to do, and some momentum that I need heading into the U.S. Open.” He had not had much to hang his hat on until then, making only a birdie and a bogey on his first nine to make the turn in even-par 35 on the par-70 Southwind course.
It has been a pressure-filled week for the 5-time major winner, starting last Thursday when Mickelson was approached by FBI agents asking questions about an insider-trading investigation involving him, billionaire Carl Icahn and Las Vegas developer Billy Walters. The well-publicized probe has given Mickelson plenty of distractions as he looks to concentrate on completing his personal grand slam and finally winning a U.S. Open event. He said his focus on golf had been much better on Thursday, “I’m trying to take a little bit more time behind the shot, doing a better job visualizing the shot. The thing that’s really helped me is I’ve been more creative, I’ve been curving the ball more with the irons…rather than hitting the stock shot without much curvature.”
For leader Crane, it was putting that enabled him to shoot his best round of the season. He used only 24 putts in his first 18 holes, and that included a bomb of 27 feet for birdie on his final hole of the day, No. 9. Crane finished his round with only a handful of spectators, as officials closed the course for viewing because of the high winds in the area. According to officials, more of the same kind of weather is expected throughout the weekend in the Memphis area. With a major tournament looming next week, there is a likelihood the tournament would be cut to 54 holes rather than extend the final round until Monday.
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Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky