CROMWELL – Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson are separated in age by nearly two decades, McIlroy 31 years old and Mickelson having just turned 50.
But through their first round of play at the Travelers Championship on Thursday, the two big-name golfers were neck-and-neck.
McIlroy had a strong showing on his first day at TPC River Highlands, shooting 7-under par after a strong three holes where he eagled the 13th and birdied the 14th and 15th. McIlroy followed that dominant stretch with a bogey on 16, but finished with a 63 to put himself near the top of the leaderboard after taking advantage of a forgiving course by keeping his focus away from how the course plays.
“For me especially, you get a little antsy and I start to maybe get a little quick if you're thinking that way, so I have to keep reminding myself it's a 72-hole golf tournament and there's plenty of chances throughout the week to make birdies,” McIlroy said. “Even after the first few holes where I had chances and then didn't quite convert, you just have to keep telling yourself, so many more chances coming up.”
He took advantage of those chances, and so did Mickelson, 19 years McIlroy’s senior but finishing 6-under in his quest to win the event once again. Mickelson has shined at TPC River Highlands since winning the event two years in a row nearly 20 years ago, becoming the first golfer to ever accomplish that feat.
McIlroy had yet to start high school when Mickelson won his second in a row back in 2002, and the two were paired together on Thursday, matching each other shot for shot.
“His longevity is incredible,” McIlroy said. “It really is. I think the big thing about Phil is his resilience. I mean, he's won 44 times on Tour, which is an incredible number, but the amount of close misses he's had, as well, and the fact he kept coming back and kept coming back and played well and putting himself in position. It looks from the outside he's never feared failure, and I think that's what's made him such a fan favorite is he goes for things and he takes on things. And he has a deep appreciation for his place in the game and the game of golf itself.”
For Mickelson, 50 is just a number, which he showed on Thursday by recording back-to-back birdies twice in his round, while finishing his day with a birdie on 18.
Mickelson didn’t record a bogey.
“So I love what I do,” Mickelson said. “I love my job. I love trying to play and compete, and I really enjoy playing with guys like Rory and Bryson [DeChambeau] who are just tremendous talents and trying to compete with those guys. Rory has got one of the most beautiful golf swings this game has ever seen, and Bryson has got a unique style of playing that is fascinating, and he plays at the highest level. I enjoy kind of watching and learning, but I also enjoy trying to play my game and compete regardless of age.”
McIlroy enjoyed watching Mickelson’s success unfold on Thursday, and could only look on and hope he would be able to perform at that level 20 years from now.
“Can I see myself out here at 50?” McIlroy said. “It's 20 years down the line, but I'd like to think that I would still have the love for the game that Phil has at that age.”