AUGUSTA -- It's not often that Phil Mickelson can slide around these Georgia pines virtually unnoticed.

Folks have talked more about the pollen this week than Lefty, the two-time Masters champion who opened Thursday with a 5-under 67 that has him set up for the weekend.

So, why is Phil Phorgotten?

Well, he was automatically taking a backseat to Tiger Woods' return, no matter Woods' score. A 4-under 68 -- Woods' best Thursday ever here -- ensured that would be the case.

The leader is 50-year-old Fred Couples, the Augusta National fan favorite who had a career-best round of 6-under 66.

Fellow AARP member Tom Watson's 67 will also draw a lot of the headlines. Watson is still showing the world that last year's British Open was no fluke.

All that leaves Phil somewhere beyond the spotlight's cast. He seems OK with that. After all, how often has he been in that position?

In his previous wins here, in 2004 and 2006, Mickelson started off at or just below par. He shot 70 and 72 in those opening stanzas toward a green jacket.

"Thursday is about getting off to a good start," Mickelson said, calm and pleased after his round. "I needed a good, solid round because I've been putting myself behind early in tournaments and been having to almost force things."

He has gone low here on Thursday before, opening with a personal-best 65 in 1996 and a 66 the year before that. Both ended in top-10 finishes, but Mickelson seems locked in on something bigger than that.

Mickelson has talked all week about feeling at ease at Augusta National. It showed Thursday.

Mickelson said confidence in his short game gives him comfort that he can rebound from less-than-perfection from the tees and fairways.

"It relaxes me," Mickelson said. "I know the greens. I know the reads. So I have a lot of confidence when I'm putting."

That all rang true -- especially on Mickelson's back nine.

After a front-nine 35, Phil kicked it into gear with a snaking 30-foot eagle putt on No. 13. He followed with a 40-foot birdie putt on 14 and dropped a 25-footer on 15.

Able partners

So much for wondering how Tiger's playing partners would adjust to the intense scrutiny of their round Thursday. Both Korea's K.J. Choi and American Matt Kuchar aced their tests.

Choi, particularly and perhaps predictably unflapped by Tigerpalooza, is one off the lead after a 5-under 67.

"K.J., as we all know, can play," Woods said. "He gets into his own little world and he focuses and he gets the job done, and he did today."

Choi's best finish here is second in 2004.

Kuchar, the former Georgia Tech star who played with Tiger in the 1998 Masters, finished with a 2-under 70.

The group, factoring in Woods' score, finished a collective 11 under.

Rusty Dusty

Being one of the longest hitters on tour, you'd expect Dustin Johnson to make his hay on Augusta National's par-5s. And, yet, the bomber from Columbia was 2 over on the holes Thursday, doubling the 570-yard 8th and parring the rest.

A wayward tee shot spelled disaster on No. 8.

Still, Johnson played well enough to finish with a 1-under 71. Hitting to within inches on the par-3 16th, and tapping in for birdie, helped.

"First round, anything under par here is good," said Johnson, who is first on tour with a 308-yard average driving distance.

Johnson has won three times on tour, including consecutively at Pebble Beach.

More local flavor

Johnson is not the only player here with Palmetto State ties.

Greenville's Bill Haas, with father Jay in the gallery, shot even par to stay in the hunt.

Haas said his first memory of Augusta was being dropped off at a day care across the street from the course.

He was 6.

"I told my mom I didn't want to go back to that day care," Haas said.

Clemson's Ben Martin, a Georgia native playing as an amateur, shot 75. Former Tiger Lucas Glover, the U.S. Open winner last summer, shot 76.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.