PINEHURST, N.C. - This is just what we expected from a guy renowned for getting out of rough spots, like the time he hit off pine straw, through a narrow opening of trees and won the Masters. Thursday offered vintage Phil Mickelson, emerging from suspicion in the Clorox investigation and turning out to be Mr. Clean.
The U.S. Open got off to an excellent start Thursday for this year's headliner. He woke early for his 7:51 tee time, about when many Americans were learning that The New York Times had effectively cleared Mickelson in a probe about insider trading of Clorox stock before Carl Icahn's proposed company takeover.
According to the newspaper, one of the outlets that previously reported that FBI agents questioned Mickelson after a round of the Memorial Tournament, there was no evidence that the golfer traded Clorox shares. And while Icahn and professional gambler William Walters remain under investigation, the report said, the scope of the probe had been "overstated."
So after his round Thursday, the only questioners Mickelson faced were reporters and TV personalities wanting to know about the par 70 he shot on Pinehurst No. 2 and his reaction to the Clorox news.
"I'm willing to help out, [I'd] love to help out any way on the investigation. But I'll continue to say I've done absolutely nothing wrong," he said to the latter line of questioning. "I've got a lot to say. I just can't say it right now."
He is in position to have something to say about who will win this 114th U.S. Open, the 24th in which he has been a participant. Mickelson is wise enough to realize that par always is a good score at the Open, and that he had better putt better than he has been to have a chance to finally win the tournament that has most painfully eluded him.
Right after his round, he spent a few minutes on the practice green with the "claw" grip he is using as a patchwork remedy this week. He was eager to work on the alignment problem -- "My eye alignment has not been over the ball," he said -- that was noticed by his longtime caddie and friend, Bones Mackay.
Mickelson could have been in even better shape had he not bogeyed Nos. 6 and 8. To borrow a term from the legal game, his putts there were "overstated."
"The one club that's hurting me is the putter, so I've got to get that turned around the next couple days," he said.
One thing he doesn't have to change is the vibe around him. He is perfectly comfortable as the overwhelming sentimental favorite at this venue, where he first finished second at the Open 15 years ago. Clorox probe notwithstanding, his image was squeaky clean with the galleries here.
Matthew Fitzpatrick, the 19-year-old U.S. Amateur champion from England who was in Mickelson's group, was relieved to hear his own name being shouted by his dad and kid brother. "With everyone supporting Phil, you feel kind of left out and everyone is against you," he said.
Pinehurst was -- to borrow a phrase from the bleach game -- awash in nostalgia Thursday. Rickie Fowler, one of Mickelson's usual practice partners, surprised everyone outside his tight inner circle by showing up wearing knickers in tribute to the late Payne Stewart. It was Stewart who beat Mickelson with a putt on the final hole here in 1999, then graciously took Mickelson's face in his hands and encouraged him.
Fowler looked up to Stewart and recalls crying on the way home from school as a 10-year-old when he learned of the champion's death in a plane accident. "When I was walking off 1, someone yelled out, 'Rickie Stewart!' Definitely a special day," Fowler said.
Mickelson used that same word: "This is a special week. This is a special tournament, a tournament that means a lot to me."
Now he gets to play the rest of it totally unstained, with the chance to have a lot to say this weekend.