A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Mickelson adds star power to Open

Phil Mickelson is a big draw at the Houston Open. PGA.com

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It was hard to know which headline had Houston cheering louder Thursday.

Another Opening Day lead-off Springer Dinger or Phil Mickelson on the Houston Open leader board after opening with six birdies in his first eight holes.

Honestly, neither one gets old.

We’re used to World Series MVP George Springer swinging for the fences, but Thursday he became the first player to open back-to-back seasons with a leadoff homer up in Arlington for the #Neversettle Houston Astros and the first player from a defending World Championship team to start the season with a leadoff homer the following year.

And Mickelson? One of Houston’s all-time favorite players never really does subtle, does he? We expect wild tee shots and jaw-dropping recoveries. And moments like he had earlier this month when he one-upped Justin Thomas in a playoff the WGC-Mexico Championship for his first win since the 2013 British Open.

With the lineup they have, we expect the Astros, 4-1 winners in the opener, to start their season strong. Especially when they go up their against in-state rivals the Texas Rangers.

As for Mickelson, he cooled off on the back with a run of pars and a double-bogey at the par-3 14th, but, just a few months away from turning 48, he’s still right there, just three shots back with three rounds to play.

He’s tied with a bunch of others, including fourth-ranked, legend-in-the-making Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson, at 4-under-par 68 and just two behind another fan favorite Rickie Fowler. Steve Stricker, who has won the last two Champions Tour events, is in a group at 5-under.

“I played well today and I certainly, the back nine, didn't make a birdie, played 2-over  and that's disappointing,’’ he said. “But I'm playing well. I got off to a good start. My goal is not to win on Thursday, my goal is to try to get in contention for the weekend.  So I didn't hurt myself there, but I didn't help myself as much as I could have.’’

Still, having that crowd on the leader board and Mickelson eyeing the weekend is  just what the Houston Open needs.

We’ve got months to go with the Astros, but just the rest of the week with the Houston Open. Next week it’s off to the Masters when the season really kicks into high gear and Mickelson, Spieth, Fowler and Stenson are all in the conversation for this year’s green jacket.

Without a title sponsor for the first time in decades, the Houston Open is putting on a great show to showcase Houston and, well, having those guys on the opening-day leaderboard certainly doesn’t hurt.

Mickelson is a perennial fan favorite around the country, but Houston has a special place in his heart since his wife Amy and mother Mary both underwent breast cancer surgery and subsequent treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

And when the Houston Open took the pre-Masters slot and started setting up the course with quick greens and mowing patterns that mimicked Augusta National’s setup with a different grass, Mickelson started playing his way in. Although he struggled with certain holes that didn’t set up well for him, he figured it out and won here in 2011.  That year – cue the cheering – he chipped in on the first hole of the final round just to get things going.

After his round, he talked about hitting those low running slices he’ll need next week. Great prep for what could be a fourth green jacket.

“There's a lot of holes where (a low running slice) fits here and I'm just trying to hit that shot and get comfortable with it, and I hit it well,’’ he said.

Mickelson, who went more than four and half years without a win, has a win, a second, a third and a fifth this season, has moved to 18th in the world and is fifth in the Ryder Cup standings. And he has his eye on that 50-win mark. He’s at 43 and holding. And, yes, the plans to get there.

Thursday, he wasn’t happy with the double on the back nine, but otherwise it was a good start. “I didn't make any big mistakes off the tee, which out here there's potential for disaster on every tee shot,’’ he said. “I have found that disaster over the years just about every place here.  So I was able to navigate through all the disaster, potential tough holes, and didn't hurt myself off the tee and then my iron play took over.’’

Houston Open tournament director Steve Timms calls Mickelson one of the great draws in the game and fans at the Golf Club of Houston flock to him. Part of it are those smiles and great reactions to his shots – good and bad – on the course; part is the way he signs autographs for children and engages the crowd, period. And fans don’t forget when, after winning the 2010 Masters, he teed it up in 2011 and won here.

Spieth and Fowler both attract crowds too. Spieth, the Dallas native and former Texas Longhorn, will be eyeing his second green jacket next week and fourth major overall. He won America’s hearts early, winning both the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015 and finishing tied for fourth at the British Open and second at the PGA. Last year, he won the British Open, leaving him just a PGA away from the Grand Slam.

And Fowler? He’s got that “it” factor. He has only won four times so far, but one was the 2015 PLAYERS Championship. He has two top-10 finishes in Houston, including last year’s tie for third.

If Mickelson, Spieth and Fowler are in the mix in that final round, it could be another Houston Open to remember.


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