LA QUINTA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson still feels as young as ever. He still plays that way, too.
Mickelson, a 48-year-old left-hander, began his 27th full season as a professional on Thursday by flirting with one of the few feats he has not accomplished — golf’s magic number. He finished one stroke short, shooting a 12-under 60 for the first-round lead at the Desert Classic in La Quinta, Calif., tying his career-low score he last shot in the Phoenix Open six years ago. It was the most under par he has been in any of his 2,077 rounds on the PGA Tour.
“It was a kind of a lucky day for me in the sense that I did not feel sharp heading in,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t really had the intense practice sessions that I would like, but I felt like all parts were O.K. and it just clicked. Some days, you have those days where it just clicked. And the bad shots that I hit, I got away with. I was able to kind of not have the big score.”
Needing to play the final two holes in two under to shoot 59 on the cloudy, rainy day at La Quinta Country Club, Mickelson missed a 15-foot birdie attempt on the par-4 17th before holing a 9-footer for birdie on the par-4 18th.
“I was aware of it,” Mickelson said about shooting 59. “I was giving it all I had and I had a good chance. On 17, I hit a nice tee shot in a good spot to kind of hook a sand wedge into that back right pin for me. And I hit a good shot, I had 18 feet though, I should have hit that closer, but still had a good chance to make the putt. Made a good birdie on 18. That’s not an easy hole for me, that shot the way it sits along the water.”
Mickelson had a three-stroke lead over Adam Long, a 31-year-old tour rookie, who finished off a 63 in the dark on PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament Course. Long eagled the par-5 fourth and had seven birdies — five in a row from No. 9 to No. 13 — in an eight-hole stretch. Curtis Luck of Australia was third at 64; he was also playing La Quinta.
The fog-delayed round was Mickelson’s first on tour since early October and the first in competition since beating Tiger Woods in Las Vegas in November in a made-for-television event.
“I knew it wasn’t far-off, but it didn’t feel like I was ready to go,” Mickelson said. “I just felt like I needed to be careful. I felt I played a little bit more conservative.”
He birdied the first two holes and played the back-to-back par 5s in three under with a birdie on No. 5 and a 5-foot eagle putt on No. 6.
Mickelson added a birdie on the par-4 ninth for a front-nine 30, and birdied the par-4 10th, par-5 11th, par-5 13th and par-4 14th, holing a chip from in front of the 14th green.
“That was an interesting shot because I could have easily lost one and I ended up picking one up,” he said.
He then ran in a 5-footer for birdie on the par-4 16th.
The Desert Classic is the only PGA Tour event to yield two sub-60 rounds. David Duval had a 59 at PGA West’s Palmer Course when he won in 1999. Adam Hadwin shot 59 at La Quinta in 2017.
Top-ranked Justin Rose, also making his 2019 debut, had a 68 at La Quinta — one of three courses used in the event. He is the first No. 1 player to play the tournament since the world ranking began in 1986.
“It’s kind of like you’re at the starting line and they kept dragging it back 30 minutes with the fog,” Rose said. “So, that was tricky just to keep warm really and keep loose. But once I got going, I felt like I played really well.”
TOMS AND DURANT TIED David Toms and Joe Durant each shot seven-under 65 to share the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions’ season-ending Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Toms closed his bogey-free round with a 2-foot birdie putt on the par-4 18th. He won the United States Senior Open last year for his first Champions title after winning 13 times on the PGA Tour.
Durant, a four-time PGA Tour champion who has won three times on the 50-and-over circuit, also birdied the 18th.
Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Scott Parel were tied for third at 68. Jiménez won at Hualalai in 2015.