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Mickelson works on major flaw with 66

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — ROCHESTER, N.Y. - As with most major-championship venues, Phil Mickelson has bittersweet memories of Oak Hill Country Club. It was here, in 1995, that he made his Ryder Cup debut, winning all three of his matches, but watching the U.S. team lose to Europe by a point.

This long, tight course that punishes the smallest mistakes took its toll on some of the game's other elite players in yesterday's opening round of the 85th PGA Championship, but not so much on its most frustrated star.

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With a 4-under-par 66 that gave him a share of the lead with Rodney Pampling of Australia, Mickelson put himself in position to either add to his lengthy history of misery in majors or end one of the game's most dubious droughts.

Mickelson is 0-for-41 in majors as a professional, 0-for-45 overall.

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Mickelson and Pampling lead Billy Andrade by one stroke. Two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen and reigning Masters champion Mike Weir of Canada are two shots behind.

Seven others, including former champion Vijay Singh and Fred Funk, finished at 1-under 69.

"Everyone wants to get off to a good start," said Mickelson, whose bogey on the par-4 18th cost him the outright lead.

"It's tough to play catch-up at major championships because the courses seem to progressively get more difficult as the week goes on."

Two-time champion Tiger Woods will be playing catch-up after shooting a 4-over-par 74. Defending champion Rich Beem will likely be going home after today's second round. Beem made history by shooting the worst round ever the year after winning the PGA Championship, a 12-over 82.

Pampling, who at 33 is playing in his first PGA Championship, knows something about going from first to worst. Four years ago, he led the British Open at Carnoustie with an opening-round 66, only to shoot 86 the next day and miss the cut.

"I'm very happy with the way I played today. I didn't really do anything wrong," said Pampling, who didn't make a bogey.

"Obviously by the scorecard, you can see. Obviously, it's the first day and there's still three more to go, but it's a nice position to be in, that's for sure."

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Given Pampling's history in majors - the second-year PGA Tour player also missed the cut at his only other major, this year's U.S. Open - it might be helpful that his wife, Angela, is a clinical psychologist who follows her husband around the course.

"Obviously, we don't interact while we're out there," Pampling said. "She more or less just looks at the way I react to certain shots. If I hit a bad shot, she'll just see how I react, just to make sure I'm keeping on top of it and not letting it get to me."

Given Mickelson's history in majors - he's twice finished second in the U.S. Open, was second to David Toms in the 2001 PGA Championship and has come in fourth or better nine times overall - the 32-year-old left-hander could use some help keeping his head together the next three days.

His tie for sixth last week in The International was Mickelson's best finish since coming in third in this year's Masters. A winner of 21 PGA Tour events, he has gone more than a year without a victory and recently stopped doing pre-tournament interviews.

Yesterday, he declined a customary trip to the media tent, claiming hunger and mental fatigue because of his early tee time.

"I think it's more important that I maintain my physical strength, mental strength and have a break than it is to accommodate everyone here," said Mickelson.

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Mickelson has done some interesting things to break up the routine this week. Instead of playing Oak Hill for his final practice round on Wednesday, he played another course nearby and shot 62. A diehard pro football fan, he visited a local team also known for its misses in big games.

"I had never been to a training camp and the Buffalo Bills are literally 30 seconds away," said Mickelson.

"It was nice to get away from the golf course and have physically and mentally a little bit of a break and get ready for today. It was fun. I love football and it was a very interesting experience."

Mickelson got a fast start yesterday, making birdies on three of his first four holes. He made only two bogeys, reaching nine of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation while taking 28 putts. Unlike Woods, Mickelson was hitting his driver consistently off the tee.

"If the fairways tighten or the doglegs start turning at a certain point, I'll switch clubs," said Mickelson, whose aggressiveness has often cost him dearly in past majors. "I think the setup of this golf course has been tremendous and it allows the players to hit drivers."

Given that Oak Hill hasn't hosted a major golf event since the Ryder Cup eight years ago, he might have a little advantage over most of the competition.

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Back then, he was a 25-year-old who most thought was on the verge of becoming the best player in the world. Not anymore.

Now, Mickelson is the father of three whose world ranking has dropped from second behind Woods to 10th. He has been second-guessed about tons of decisions he has made on the course and even scrutinized - sometimes unfairly - about using his family as an excuse for not working hard enough on his game or his conditioning.

A victory here would change everything for Mickelson.

"It's Thursday right now and there's a lot of golf left, and I am not looking that far down yet," he said.

Others already have.

"Maybe he can get the monkey off his back this week," Toms, who beat Mickelson by a stroke in the 2001 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, said after shooting 75.

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"If I don't win, then why not him? He's a friend of mine and he's been playing good golf for a long time and he needs to win a major to erase the doubts."

And the memories in majors, more bitter than sweet.

PGA Championship

The leaders ...

Rod Pampling 33-33-66

Phil Mickelson 34-32-66

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... and selected followers

Billy Andrade 34-33-67

Mike Weir 34-34-68

Lee Janzen 34-34-68

Vijay Singh 35-34-69

Fred Funk 32-37-69

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Loren Roberts 35-35-70

Robert Allenby 35-35-70

Ernie Els 36-35-71

Jim Furyk 35-37-72

Sergio Garcia 37-35-72

Mark Calcavecchia 37-36-73

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Davis Love 38-36-74

Tiger Woods 38-36-74

Ben Curtis 40-35-75

Rich Beem 42-40-82

Complete scores. [Page 8c]


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