Greg Cote

Fan favorite Phil Mickelson proves he isn’t done, opens with 67 at Doral

Phil Mickelson drives the ball on the 17th tee in the first round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami, Florida, on Thursday, March 3, 2016.
Phil Mickelson drives the ball on the 17th tee in the first round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami, Florida, on Thursday, March 3, 2016. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Hundreds of golf fans stood three-deep Thursday along the rope separating them from Phil Mickelson, who moved gradually down the line as dusk rolled in out at Trump National Doral. He would spend 20 minutes amiably autographing the various items poking toward him in outstretched hands.

“Phil! Phil! Down here! Phil!”

This is why fans still love Mickelson. He gives them an easy smile. He gives them his time. And Thursday, he gave them a reason to believe he isn’t done yet — that maybe Lefty winning again, even winning big, isn’t a concept ready for permanent past tense.

It had begun to seem that way, hadn’t it? Mickelson is at that awkward age now. He is 45. In golf, that is when they start measuring you for the professional coffin. When a man is fading by degrees from PGA Tour relevance and begins counting the months until age 50, when the easier-money Champions Tour offers you a shot of career Viagra.

That Mickelson has not added to his 42 career tournament wins since 2013 — the past two seasons his first winless ones since 1999 — only greased the perception he was close to done.

No, though. Not yet.

The three-time Masters champion and five-time majors winner is proving in early 2016, and showed again Thursday in the first round of the World Golf Championships event here, that he has life left in his game.

He is the old guy now, the underdog, but that only makes the galleries who follow the popular Mickelson cheer that much louder when he enjoys a day like this one.

Mickelson shot a 5-under par 67 across the Blue Monster to stand in third place, one shot behind improbable co-leaders Scott Piercy, a journeyman whose name looks like a typographical error and who has won only three small tournaments since turning pro in 2001, and Marcus Fraser, who has yet to win on the PGA Tour.

But this is the beauty of golf, or at least the unpredictability of it.

Everybody is always looking for lobster and filet mignon atop every leaderboard, but sometimes it’s a burger or mac ’n cheese up there, at least temporarily.

Piercy and Fraser ought not look in the rear-view mirror, though, because what they’d find would be rather intimidating: Objects closer — and bigger — than they appear.

See, tournament host Donald Trump — who you may have heard is running for president — didn’t show up at Doral on Thursday. But the stars did. The fans didn’t, not entirely. Players spoke of a subdued crowd, including the throng following the glamour threesome of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy. The leaderboard deserved better.

Not only is the resurgent Mickelson shining, but the pack only a few shots behind at 3-under include the world’s No. 1-ranked player, Spieth, and No. 4 Bubba Watson. Top-five ranked Rickie Fowler and McIlroy also are under par.

“We all know we’re trying to beat those guys week in, week out. They’ve proved it,” Piercy said of the bigger stars hard in his wake. “I haven’t proved it week in, week out. But when my game’s there, I’m pretty decent.”

This season is supposed to continue the tour takeover by the 20-something young guns Spieth, Day, McIlroy and Fowler, a changing of the guard contrasted by Tiger Woods’ sharp decline and continuing injury absence and by what has been Mickelson’s slow fade.

Mickelson, old enough to be Spieth’s father, was asked Thursday how it feels to be in his mid-40s battling kids in their 20s.

“The ball, the scorecard — they don’t know the difference in age,” he said, smiling. “It’s a fun challenge for me to get back to competing at the highest level.”

Mickelson recently changed swing coaches, dropping the more prominent Butch Harmon in favor of Andrew Getson, and credits the switch.

“It’s been very frustrating the last couple years,” Mickelson said. “For 20 years I was controlling shots. I’m having so much fun being able to do that again. I can be calm and relaxed because I know I’ve got good shots coming. It’s very encouraging to have results come fairly quickly. I’m striking the ball really well again. I don’t feel stressed.”

Mickelson rode that good mood from the course to the post-round interviews and then onto the mass of waiting fans.

“Phil! Phil! Down here! Phil!”

He isn’t done yet — not if Thursday was any indication.

Might he stave off the young guns to make a run at a fourth green jacket in April? Might the U.S Open title that has eluded him yet be his?

He has fresh hope.

As he finished his autograph session and walked away, Phil Mickelson seemed to bounce. He was smiling.

“I enjoyed the day,” he said.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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