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Phil Mickelson hitting it thin, straight at Shriners Open

Updated October 4, 2019 - 12:11 am

Frank, Dean, Sammy. Madonna, Cher, Beyonce. Liberace, Charo, Gaga.

Siegfried, Roy. Penn, Teller.

There are no shortage of one-named people, or people easily identified by one name, who have played Las Vegas and played it big.

Even on the local golf links.

Tiger.

Phil.

When last seen navigating tee boxes, fairways and greens in these environs, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were hacking it up in a $9 million, winner-take-all, pay-per-view offering called “The Match: Tiger vs. Phil.” It was Thanksgiving weekend at swanky Shadow Creek and wound up being golf’s answer to Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump.

The pay-per-view didn’t work. Neither did Tiger and Phil’s woods, irons and putters.

“This is some crappy golf,” chortled celebrity broadcast analyst Charles Barkley.

Hitting it thin

Phil won on the third playoff hole, under artificial light, on a makeshift hole of 93 yards on which the legends teed off from a practice putting green in lieu of a rotating windmill.

But Phil Mickelson — surname included only as a matter of record — had nothing for which to feel sheepish after his opening round at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. Playing in his first PGA tournament in Las Vegas since 2005, the slimmed-down Lefty shot 6-under-par 65 at windless TPC Summerlin and is tied for third.

This wasn’t crappy golf.

A svelte Mickelson showed up in Las Vegas with a profile like a 1-iron; he appears to have dropped 30 pounds since he and Woods plodded around Shadow Creek in a tryptophan coma. When a reporter congratulated him on his new physique and attitude, he uttered a Bagger Vance-ish manifesto.

“I appreciate you saying that. It’s just I love what I do,” said the winner of five major championships and $9.6 million tour dollars but winner of very little lately, at least when the other tour members are allowed to play.

“I have the greatest job in the world. I love playing the Tour. I love the guys out here; I love the challenge of beating the guys out here. I love the travel, the cities we go to, the courses we play.

“The challenge of playing golf at the highest level brings out the best in me. It forces me to get in the best shape, forces me to work hard and to focus on something positive, improving my game. It gives me a direction. It’s been a big part of my life, and I love it.”

And here all some of us wanted to ask was about the 60-foot putt on No. 9 — his 18th hole of the first round — that almost went in for eagle.

“Just caught the lip,” Mickelson said with a bigger smile than you’ll find on a range ball.

Gallery turns out

He missed the cut at last week’s Safeway Open, but felt his game was shaping up. Subtle fixes, he called it.

“The par-5 play was poor. Played today’s par-5s 3-under and I shoot a good round. That was a pretty easy fix,” said Mickelson, whose only bogey Thursday was on the first hole he played. “I’ve had an awful six months, but things are great now and I’m excited to play good golf.”

Local fans seemed excited to cheer him out of a downward spiral that has seen him post just one top 35 finish since winning at Pebble Beach in February and miss the cut eight times in his past 17 starts.

Ticket sales for the Shriners Open are up 60 percent, and Thursday’s gallery made it seem like a weekend. Mickelson’s presence and that of world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, who played one group behind him, is accounting for much of the swell. Spectators were standing three- and four-deep on Mickelson’s closing holes.

He’s 49 now with his best days behind him, but you couldn’t tell it from the love he was receiving from behind the ropes. The locals were thrilled just to watch him hit it straight, sink the makeable putts and put himself in contention.

As he lined up his approach on the day’s final hole, a woman wearing a magenta bathing suit bounded off the deck of her swimming pool to snap his picture. A big yellow dog barked. Koepka would be following shortly, but he wasn’t hitting them as straight as Mickelson or making his putts.

After golfers identified by two names hit their shots and walked with Phil to the green, the big yellow dog began to whimper.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow

@ronkantowski on Twitter.

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