It's been an eventful week for Phil Mickelson. Lefty's name was linked to reports of the super golf league -- a breakaway tour from the PGA Tour -- earlier in the week with an apparent $100 million price tag attached to his bag. Then he went out in Round 1 of the Wells Fargo Championship and drove the price up.
Mickelson shot a shocking 7-under 64 in Round 1 to take a 2-stroke lead over Keegan Bradley and K.H. Lee. Even by Mickelson's standards at Quail Hollow -- where he is the all-time leader in top-10 finishes (10 in 17 tries), this was impressive. It's the lowest opening round of his illustrious career at this tournament.
With just three top 10s since the start of 2020, nobody expected much from Mickelson, even at a track he's dominated and even in a week where he had the spotlight and potential to ratchet up the leverage he currently has at his disposal. We saw him pop up momentarily at The Players Championship earlier this spring, but it didn't last. This one, though? He's first in the field from tee to green and flushing everything he looks at. Though he's still not a great bet to win the golf tournament, I'm not sure it's easily dismissable either.
If Mickelson hangs on for the 45th victory of his career, he would not be the oldest winner in PGA Tour history (Sam Snead won at age 52, Mickelson turns 51 later this year), but he would be just the eighth player age 50 or older to win a tournament. Given the strength of this field, the inconsistency of his game and the general depth of golf, that would be one of the most incredible feats in a career packed with incredible feats.
Let's dive into his round and everything that took place over the first 18 holes at Quail Hollow.
1. Phil Mickelson (-7): After starting birdie-bogey, Mickelson nearly holed out multiple times over the next 16 holes. For somebody known for his sometimes-flailing, gunslinger style, his round on Thursday was shockingly steady. Ten of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation. At one point on the Golf Channel broadcast, Nick Faldo was cackling over Mickelson playing strategic, smart golf. Phil Mickelson! I was right there with him. It would be one thing if Lefty simply jarred every putt he had. We've seen that before, and this was not that. This was a savvy, "I've played here 100 times" round in which he was feeling his iron play. Mickelson gave himself six birdie looks under 6 feet. Six! If that even remotely continues, he has a shot.
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T2. K.H. Lee, Keegan Bradley (-5): Bradley is the one to watch here as Lee's putter is unsustainably hot, and Bradley nearly won last week at the Valspar Championship. He did it again mostly from tee to green. This is nothing new from Bradley who has been among the top 12 players in the world from tee to green over the last three months.
T4. Peter Malnati, Tommy Fleetwood, Luke List, Gary Woodland, Keith Mitchell, Kyle Stanley (-4): Quite a crew here, and there's nobody I really love. I guess if you forced me to choose, I'd ride with Fleetwood after his 67 on Thursday given his propensity to play well at difficult, major championship-like courses like Quail Hollow.
"I enjoy the challenges the major championships bring," said Fleetwood when asked about playing a course that has hosted a major. "This is a major championship golf course and it's not given me a lot of love really the two times I've played it, but hopefully we can change that this week. To be at the top of the game, to get there, the toughest tests are a lot of times where you need to do well and prove yourself and that's where we all want to be."
T10. Brian Harman, Sungjae Im, Satoshi Kodaira, Hunter Mahan, Brian Stuard, Joel Dahmen, Patrick Rodgers: It was a pretty awesome day for a former top-five player in the world in Mahan. He does not have a top-50 anywhere since the 2019 Barbasol Championship (!) and has no top 10s since the start of 2019. Listen to him talk about the game, though -- what it's given him and what it's meant to him -- and it's hard not to root for him to return to some kind of form. Maybe that happens this week, maybe not, but Thursday was a good step in the right direction and the 68 was his second-lowest round of 2021 (he shot 67 in Round 1 of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am).
T17. Justin Thomas, Viktor Hovland (-2): Two stars who grinded a little Thursday and are among the top players from tee to green after 18 holes. There's a reason J.T. is still the favorite to win here, and now Hovland is just behind him and Mickelson on the odds board, according to William Hill Sportsbook. Thomas stayed flushing (nobody has hit it better for the last two months), and the putter did not betray him this time around. His win equity is preposterously high right now, though he and Hovland could run into some afternoon weather Friday which could set them back a bit going into the weekend.