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Published: Friday June 14, 2013 MYT 7:13:00 AM

Mickelson withstands endurance test to seize Open lead

ARDMORE, Pennsylvania: Phil Mickelson played the first round of the US Open on Thursday at Merion on only three hours of sleep after a cross-country flight so he could see daughter Amanda's eighth-grade graduation.

Battling exhaustion and a formidable course, Mickelson fired a three-under par 67 - his lowest US Open first round since 1999 - to seize the early lead at a long-sought major where he has settled for second a record five times.

"Yeah, it might be abnormal, but it actually worked out really well," said Mickelson. "I got all my work done on Merion when I was here a week and a half ago. I knew exactly how I wanted to play the golf course."

Mickelson, an American left-hander who turns 43 on Sunday and the clear fan favorite in cheers, departed Merion on Monday for his Southern California home and spent two days sharpening his game on his personal practice area.

"I didn't feel I needed more time at Merion. What I needed was to get my game sharp," he said. "And having a nice practice facility and nice weather for the last couple of days allowed me to do that."

Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion who also won the PGA Championship in 2005, was the US Open runner-up in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009 but hopes to finally collect that trophy on Father's Day.

"If I never get that win, it would be a bit heartbreaking," Mickelson admitted.

Being with his daughter was as important as preparing for the Open to Mickelson.

"Really proud of her. She did a great job. I was really glad I was there," Mickelson said.

"She told me, 'It's fine. Stay. It's the US Open, I know how much you care about it.' And I told her that I want to be there. I don't want to miss that. I don't want to miss her speech.

I don't want to miss her graduation. She has worked very hard and I'm very proud of her."

The last time Mickelson started a US Open this well, 14 years ago at Pinehurst, he was awaiting a potential pager call that would have sent him walking off the course to attend Amanda's birth.

The call never came but Amanda did the next day, with Mickelson there after finishing second to the late Payne Stewart.

Mickelson tried to say his cross-country flight wasn't unusual but he had only done it before for corporate outings and he wasn't planning on doing it again before round two, saying, "I don't want to push it, no."

Mickelson caught a flight at 11 p.m. Merion time, landed two hours before arriving at the course 94 minutes before his 7:11 a.m. tee time. He also napped for an hour during a 3 1/2-hour storm interruption.

"I feel great," he said. "I'll just go back tonight and rest, and I'll have all day tomorrow to rest and it's fine. It shouldn't be a problem."

Mickelson opened with a bogey at the par-4 11th, used as a starting hole due to Merion's layout, but rallied with birdies at the par-3 13th, the first and seventh and a 30-foot birdie putt at the par-3 ninth to take the lead.

"It was as good a putt from 30 feet as I could have," Mickelson said. "The odds aren't good, but it rolled in and felt great."

At the ninth tee, Mickelson had admitted to caddie Jim Mackay he was fading.

"I told Bones on nine tee box that I kind of hit a wall. And he said, 'Well, let's just take a little mental break as we walk down there.' And I ended up making the putt. So being able to tune in and tune out was kind of nice the last hole or two.

"Lefty" began to fade before he began his birdie run on the first nine.

"I might have used just a little caffeine booster at the turn, just to keep me sharp," he said. "I just wanted to make sure I had enough energy."

Mickelson warned the course was only going to get tougher as dry weather arrives through the weekend.

"This was as easy as this golf course is going to play," he said. "We had the best opportunity to score low. And we are all struggling because it's such a penalizing golf course.

"It's a course that's withstood the test of time and it's challenging the best players in the world." -AFP

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