By John Nicholson
The Associated Press
LA QUINTA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson glanced at the flag about 25 yards away, and surveyed the tall tree blocking his path. He looked again, craning his head skyward, then flashed a boyish grin and reached for his lob wedge.
Following his worst shot of the day with his best, Lefty saved par on the par-3 12th with a full-swing flop shot that climbed nearly straight up and over the 25-foot tree and stopped 2 feet from the hole. It help him salvage an even-par 72 on Thursday in the Humana Challenge in his season debut.
“That was one of my better wedges,” Mickelson said. “But, as I was telling my partner, ‘You hit it there as much as I do, eventually you’re going to learn how to hit those shots.”’
He yelled “Fore left!” a second after impact on the 202-yard hole.
“It was just very bad timing,” Mickelson said about the tee shot. “Quick from the top, lower body fast. Just a bad swing. I did the same thing on the next par 3 with the same club. Only it went the other way. I made par both times, though.”
Recovering from flu-like symptoms, the 42-year-old Mickelson had three birdies, a bogey and a double bogey at La Quinta Country Club — one of three courses used in the pro-am event that he won in 2002 and 2004 — to drop nine strokes behind the first-round leaders.
“I felt a lot better,” Mickelson said. “I took it easy on Monday and Tuesday. It was like Day 10, but I’m fine now. I’m 95 percent better.”
Jason Kokrak, Roberto Castro and James Hahn topped the leaderboard at 9-under 63.
Kokrak had two eagles and five birdies at La Quinta.
“I just tried to put it in the right spots, put it in the fairways,” Kokrak said. “Out there, that’s key. They’re tighter fairways and if you can be in the fairway, you’ll have a good opportunity for birdie.”
Castro had nine birdies at PGA West’s Jack Nicklaus Private Course, and Hahn had nine birdies on PGA West’s Arnold Palmer Private Course.
“It was a great day,” Hahn said. “Chipped two in. Hadn’t done that since I was nine.”
Russell Henley, the Sony Open winner Sunday in Hawaii in his first start as a PGA Tour member, had a 64 on the Nicklaus course. He’s 32 under in his first five rounds this year.
“It was a perfect day,” Henley said. “The weather is perfect. The greens were true. So, it’s just trying to stay patient and let the birdies come to me.”
Mickelson made his first start since tying for second in early November in the HSBC Champions in China, the only event he played after the Ryder Cup.
“My timing and rhythm was off a little bit,” Mickelson said. “My putter was atrocious and I’ve been putting great, too. So, that was disappointing.”
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