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Mickelson braces himself for surprising opportunities at the Open

| Friday, June 15, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. - The wrist brace came off. The wrist brace went back on.

Phil Mickelson fidgeted with it on a rare visit to the fairway, examined it while waiting for yet another shot from the rough. Around the green, it was on to begin the round and then off later when things started getting good.

"I don't need it for putting," Mickelson said. "I don't know why I didn't do that earlier."

It always seemed to have his attention, and with good reason. It's not often the second-ranked golfer in the world plays with something that looks like it was purchased at a Pittsburgh bowling alley wrapped around his left arm.

It looked funny and felt odd. Photographers couldn't stop taking pictures of it, people pointed at it, and there was more talk about the wrist than Tiger Woods' upcoming baby.

All which was just fine with Lefty. Because it worked.

Without it, Mickelson might never have teed it up Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open. Without it, he might have quit after a few holes of flailing away in the deep grass, a place he visited with great regularity.

With it, he managed to get in 18 holes for the first time in nearly three weeks. With it, he was able to par the last eight holes and finish with a respectable, if somewhat surprising, 74.

No surprise then that it was still firmly around his wrist as Mickelson got behind the wheel of a red Ford Explorer early Thursday evening and drove away from Oakmont Country Club with a satisfied look on his face and the U.S. Open still within his grasp.

He might not have been thinking this, but others were:

Could something as simple as a wrist brace be the thing that finally helps Mickelson win the tournament he so desperately covets• Stranger things have happened, as all who remember the 18th hole last year at Winged Foot understand so well.

"I just have to keep making pars," Mickelson said. "I believe I'll get better as the days go on."

Mickelson believes that, and there's no reason he shouldn't. This, after all, was a day where he got better as the round went on and the rust came off.

The inflammation in his wrist that made it painful to hit a golf ball only a few days ago was still there, and Mickelson rubbed the offending part after almost every shot. But it was more of an irritation than anything, and that gave him as much hope as the stretch of pars to end the round.

"It's like getting pushed in a black and blue spot," Mickelson said. "It's just annoying."

Mickelson babied it all week, not playing more than nine holes in his practice rounds. He was afraid to hit his driver, afraid to hit out of the rough, for fear the pain would get so bad he would have to quit as he did two weeks ago at the Memorial.

The only good part was that it kept him from having to explain over and over again how he blew the Open last year at Winged Foot. Reporters were more interested in asking him about the wrist than a wasted opportunity.

Those questions may well return, but if they do it will be a good thing because it will mean Mickelson is in contention on Sunday. And in the days leading up to the Open, that didn't seem like it was going to be possible.

But Mickelson was at the course hours before his 1:36 p.m. tee time to test the wrist, and he liked what he felt. The cortisone shot a week ago, the daily ice treatments and near constant physical therapy were working.

It didn't take long to find out just how well. Mickelson was in the deep rough on his second hole, couldn't find a fairway with his driver and had to scramble out of trouble until he made two routine pars to finish his round.

The stats looked abysmal. Mickelson hit only five fairways and eight greens and never made a birdie. But almost every time he needed to make a par putt under 10 feet, he rolled it in.

Meet the new Phil. Much like the old Phil.

"I've got in my mind a way to shoot around par, but I didn't execute today, and the next three days I've got to execute better," Mickelson said. "Hopefully as the tournament goes on, I'll strike it better and better."

Some of the best news for Mickelson came from the leaderboards sprinkled around Oakmont. He played late, and it didn't take long looks to figure out that just two players had broken par — and not by much.

The Open is always a 72-hole grind, and those who win it usually treat it that way. They understand the greens will get faster, the pin placements will get trickier and anything around par is a good score.

Those calculations were already being played out inside Mickelson's mind long before he walked up the final fairway. He's already got a target score — 6-over 286 — and a plan for how to get there.

He figures he doesn't need to make birdies, just avoid a lot of bogeys.

It's not a perfect plan, because golf isn't a perfect game. Oakmont is littered with disasters just waiting to happen, and the wrist could go at any time.

For once, though, Mickelson isn't burdened by expectations. He really has only one worry, and that's to remember not to leave the brace at home.

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