Phil Mickelson keeps Akshay Bhatia loose at Safeway Open

Russell Knox cards 9-under-63 to take one shot lead in the opening round of Safeway Open.

Phil Mickelson at Safeway Open

Russell Knox shot a 9-under 63 on Thursday to take the first-round lead in the Safeway Open, the first event of the new PGA TOUR season. Anirban Lahiri started his season with an opening 74, needing rescue on Friday to make the weekend.

After missing the FedExCup Playoffs by two spots to close last season, Knox had seven birdies and eagled the 550-yard, par-5 fifth hole.

Sam Burns, Cameron Percy and Bo Hoag were a stroke back. Two-time Safeway Open champ Brendan Steele joined Pat Perez at 65.

The first lesson Phil Mickelson imparted on teenager Akshay Bhatia leading into this week’s Safeway Open was one in trash talking.

The education was not done in a bullying or mean spirited way. Far from it in fact. You see 50-year-old Mickelson has taken the 18-year-old Bhatia under his wing and keeping things fun, loose and yet still competitive in practice rounds has been his mantra to the youngster.

Having decided to forego the college path Bhatia turned professional about a year ago, backing himself to make a splash early on. But his first seven PGA TOUR events (the first as an amateur) have resulted in missed cuts.

Trying to fit in on the PGA TOUR can be hard for anyone but for a teenager it’s a nerve wracking world no matter how successful your junior golf was. It’s a steep learning curve out here but one Mickelson is helping speed up.

“I played with Phil Tuesday and Wednesday … I felt like my prep work was a lot more efficient than overdone in the last three days prior to this tournament,” Bhatia explained.

“It’s only a matter of time when I start understanding the comfortability part, the structure prior to the event and I felt like this week I did a good job of it. Every week I get to play I think I learn something. The player I am today is a completely different player than I was last year.”

On Thursday Bhatia produced a 6-under 66, his career best round so far, to sit in a tie for third after the morning wave. He bested Mickelson – who returned to the PGA TOUR after missing the TOUR Championship but winning in his PGA TOUR Champions debut – by five shots.

Part of the secret was letting go of some of his rigidity and nerves and also not getting dragged down in over practicing. Instead he matched up against Mickelson. But he wouldn’t divulge who won when the two went to battle.

“What I will say is what was good for me was he made me feel like it was a tournament situation just because he’s Phil Mickelson,” Bhatia said. “Obviously he’s won a lot. But there wasn’t a lot of like advice that I really asked him this week other than a lot of trash talk on the golf course, and that’s fun going back and forth with him and playing against him.”

It is this newfound relaxed attitude Bhatia hopes will help him buck a trend that has seen him now start all seven of his TOUR events as a pro with an under par round, only to then miss the cut.

“The biggest thing is just understanding how to control my mind when I felt my heart rate got up or when I’m playing well,” he said. “But anytime I get to ask him certain questions, he’ll give me a pretty good answer. He just supports me and gives me a good laugh anytime I need it.”

Of course Mickelson knows a thing or two about performing under pressure. And his practice rounds have notoriously tried to recreate that over the years with legendary stories of battles against his fellow professionals.

“I definitely pick up on a few things when I play with him. And he’s always keeping in touch, he’s always been a role model,” Bhatia said. “Ever since I’ve turned pro, he’s really taken me under his wing. Having one of the greatest players of all time actually caring about me is pretty special. It’s a good friendship that I hope lasts a long time.”

For Mickelson Thursday represented a grind but his 71 was pretty decent considering he hit just five of 14 fairways. He remained relatively upbeat given things could have been a lot worse.

“I let a lot of shots go today, which was disappointing, and I didn’t drive it well on the front nine, for sure. For me to shoot under par, it’s actually a mini victory in that I didn’t shoot myself out of the tournament,” Mickelson said.

“I’ve got to go shoot seven, eight under par tomorrow to get in it for the weekend, but it’s very doable. I’ve actually have been playing well enough to do it, but not today. I fought to stay in it when I didn’t have it. I’ll put a little work in and see if I can go shoot a low one tomorrow and get right back in it.”

PGA Tour Release