UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. - About the freight train. It seemed to have no end, but it was creeping slowly and quietly -- you know, for a freight train -- as it moved past the 16th hole Thursday at Chambers Bay. Then, just as Phil Mickelson was preparing to putt, it stopped dead on its tracks. Swear to God.
It was as if the whole world stopped Thursday to cheer Mickelson and his quest to complete the career Grand Slam, to win the U.S. Open for the first time after six excruciating runner-up finishes.
Brian DePasquale, USGA manager of championship communications who was directing the media corps trailing Mickelson, swore he didn't give the order for the train to halt. "In all the time I've been here," DePasquale said, "that's the first time I've seen the train stop."
Thank goodness because, after watching his birdie putt catch the lip and scoot about 10 feet past the cup, Mickelson needed his full powers of concentration to make the comeback putt for par to keep his round going. The freight train sat still while Mickelson played the par-3 17th next to the tracks and teed off on No. 18, and it didn't start moving until he was far up the 18th fairway on his way to a 1-under 69 that left him four strokes behind leaders Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson and in position to challenge.
"I shot under par on the first day of the U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "The first round was the round I was going to be the most nervous. You don't want to have to fight to come back all the time."
Mickelson performed his magic around the greens on the front nine, turning in 3-under 32. On the par-5 eighth, he had to lay up after driving into the rough, but he spun a wedge near to the pin and made birdie. It seemed the kind of thing that showed his short game will keep him near the lead as the course grows firmer and faster by Sunday.
"That's not the only thing that made me feel that way," Mickelson said. "There were a number of things like the [chip] I hit on No. 1 for a par, where I hit up from down in that low area to a foot. That's the shot I feel will allow me to do well here."
The question is whether Mickelson's driver will be his undoing. On the back nine, he drove into a fairway bunker on the 10th, hit his approach long and three-putted for bogey. On 14, where his second shot also ended up in a fairway bunker, he made a 15-foot bogey save. On the 18th, where he again laid up, he hit a wedge to six feet and missed the birdie putt.
Mickelson insisted he's unconcerned about the control of his driver. "I don't feel like that's an issue, no," he said.
But he was judicious about using it, pulling out irons off the tee on the short par-4 12th and 16th while playing partners Bubba Watson and Angel Cabrera were bombing drivers 100 yards farther down the fairway.
Hall of Famer Gary Player, who said he's rooting for Mickelson to join him in the career Grand Slam club, pulled no punches when asked what has prevented Mickelson from closing the deal. "No question his driving has been the reason he has not won the U.S. Open," Player said. "You see how many times he's in the rough."
Anyone who saw Mickelson's wayward drive on the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot knows the truth of Player's observation. So, if Mickelson plays it safe with irons off the tee, he might steer clear of trouble. Maybe this is his time when nothing, not even trains rumbling past, can deter him.
And about the train, someone asked Mickelson if it bothered him. With a smile, he said, "It was slow, it was quiet, it was not a problem."