published Friday, April 6th, 2012

Greeson: Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson realize survival is top priority

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Thursday started with three perfect tee shots from three of golf's giants.

Among the gallery watching Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus open the 76th Masters at Augusta National Golf Club was three-time champ Phil Mickelson, clad in one of his green jackets.

Did it matter that it was more than six hours before his first-round tee time? Of course not, because the tribute and the cheers granted the legends of the past offer a glimpse to the future rewards of the superstars of today.

It's another lesson of Masters symmetry. This was not the lone reminder of humility and honor here Thursday; it simply was the first, coming before 8 a.m. before most of the gallery had poured their second cup.

In fact, the shapes and scenes of Thursday left us renewed with the security that sports in general and golf in particular are cyclical in nature and numeric at their cores.

It's the perfect mixture of math and magic. It's not hitting highlights as much as saving shots.

Henrik Stenson was the story of the day for 17 holes, playing nearly flawlessly on his 36th birthday until stepping to the tee box on his final hole. But he gave back four shots and more than four hours of perfection with a quadruple-bogey 8 that quickly transformed a 5 under par into a first-round 71.

Want mixing the good and the bad to get back to the middle? Stenson went out in 31, came home in 40 and seemed happier than expected.

"Finishing with an 8, I don't think I've ever done that," said Stenson, who played two shots from the pine straw on No. 18 and took out a little frustration on some innocent needles after getting back into the grass. "Well, I've got a temper, but it's almost like I got past that stage. It's easier to walk away ... [plus] I need my clubs tomorrow, so I choose that part."

Stenson was another notch in Augusta National's belt, and he was far from alone Thursday. Despite the hovering threats of incoming bad weather, the afternoon remained relatively clear until close to 6 p.m.

The pre-tournament rain left wet fairways, and maybe the need for extra distance was the reason for the tee shots that were scattered through the woods like Easter eggs.

Of course no player has ever won thus tournament on a Thursday, but several players tried to lose it.

Long after Stenson had dealt with his final-hole demons, early favorites Mickelson and Rory McIlroy wrestled with themselves as much as the course.

McIlroy, the leader through 63 holes at last year's Masters, returned to the No. 10 tee in red numbers and tried to ignore the memory of the duck-hook drive that started his Waterloo 12 months ago. Thursday, McIlroy pushed a 3-wood right, and while he saved par from the pine straw, it was the beginning of his fight to survive.

"I was going left, that's for sure. I made a nice solid 4 and moved on," McIlroy said of the 10th, where he posted a triple bogey on his way to a nightmarish final-round 80 last year.

He did move on, finishing with Stenson and a host of others at 1-under 71, four shots behind first-round leader Lee Westwood.

Despite his early-morning penance to the golf gods, Mickelson was not as fortuitous, however. He was unpredictable off the tee -- even for him. His scores were as wild as his imaginative short game, but he managed to make five birdies and limped to a 74 that actually seemed worse. He was in the final group of the day, and when it began no one believed he would have been able to dodge the weather and finish his first round.

Before a late charge that included birdies on three of the final holes, most would have believed Mickelson would have work to do today to get to play the weekend.

He detailed his shortcomings after his round before casting a wry smile.

"This is pretty good news, " said Mickelson, who said he was "Tarzanian" on his triple-bogey at No. 10 when he drove it so far left that he lost his ball. "Fortunately I didn't shoot myself out of it."

Survive and advance. It's a championship tournament after all.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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