St Jude Classic: Phil Mickelson makes a timely return to form
Last Updated: 06/06/14 3:13pm
Phil Mickelson was back on a PGA Tour leaderboard as last year's runner-up made a positive start to the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis.
Mickelson has uncharacteristically failed to record a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour so far this season.
But one week out from the US Open, which he is targeting to complete a career grand slam of the majors, the 43-year-old was showing promising form.
Play was delayed at TPC Southwind for over three hours during the afternoon when heavy rain and lightning hit the course.
Mickelson was already safely in the clubhouse following a three-under-par 67, leaving him one behind early leader Retief Goosen.
Goosen would later be nudged off the top by Peter Malnati, a 26-year-old who has made just two cuts this year, and in the fading light Malnati was also overtaken by Ben Crane, whose seven-under 63 put him two shots clear.
Mickelson ended the day in a tie for ninth place.
Malnati, who played the back nine first, dropped only one shot, at the par-four 17th, and picked up six birdies in a round of 65.
First round leaderboard
(US unless stated)
-7 B Crane
-5 P Malnati
-5 B Horschel (16)
-4 S Appleby (Aus) (17)
-4 Z Johnson (15)
-4 J Bohm (14)
-4 R Goosen (Rsa)
-4 J Durant
Click here for collated scores
Crane went better than that, with the 38-year-old American avoiding any dropped shots and making seven birdies including one at the ninth, his last, where he rolled in a 30-foot putt.
Mickelson enjoyed a strong finish, with four birdies from his last seven holes transforming his round, which also began on the back nine.
The 43-year-old was second-placed to Harris English last year at Memphis, one week before finishing second to Justin Rose at the US Open at Merion.
Mickelson has started tournaments well this season before his challenge has faded, so he hopes to sustain the challenge this time.
"I did exactly what I need to do and (gained) some momentum that I need heading into the US Open," Mickelson said. "Tomorrow's round, the same thing. Finish strong and play a good round.
"Why this round was meaningful to me is the way I finished, birdied three of the last four holes. It's something I've been struggling with, finishing the round strong. To birdie three of the last four made it a great round. That's exactly what I need to do."
Crane has won four times on the PGA Tour but not since 2011, and he has managed just one top-10 finish this season.
"Whatever happens this week I'm thrilled with this round, thrilled with the progress that we've made," Crane said.
"We're just trying to work a little more long-term in getting my game in shape. I had some back trouble that really (meant) I didn't think I would be playing golf this year.
"To be playing has been a blessing but I haven't played well at all so I'm excited to now be healthy and to start finding my game here. I'm encouraged."
Crane's back problem surfaced at The Barclays in August last year, cutting short his season.
"I just really didn't see any hope," he said. "I didn't understand why my back was hurting so bad. Found out it was my golf swing."
As he departed, Crane added: "Dinner is going to taste sweet."
Billy Horschel will resume his first round on five under on Friday, with two holes to play, while Joe Durant finished his round on four under, the same mark as Stuart Appleby, Zach Johnson and Jason Bohn, who still had holes to play.
Sweden's Freddie Jacobson joined Mickelson on three under with a 67.
Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who has failed to qualify for the US Open for the first time since the turn of the century, made a two-under 68 to start promisingly.
Defending champion English had a three-over 73 to be tied for 123rd, with play continuing on the course.