Does Phil Mickelson have your attention now?
Going into Saturday’s third round of the PGA Championship, Mickelson was not the betting favorite … despite holding a share of the lead.
He still wasn’t the betting favorite after he birdied the second hole to take sole possession of the lead, nor was he after he birdied the third to move two shots clear of the field.
And now, as he heads into the final round with a 1-stroke lead over Brooks Koepka?
Still not the favorite.
Not that you can blame the oddsmakers.
Koepka, the favorite, has won two of the last three of these things.
Mickelson, meanwhile, hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2019, hasn’t won a major since 2013, and he’s as prone as anyone to throwing up a 70 one day (as he did Saturday), 80 the next. And, oh yeah, he’s 50.
It was only a few months ago he finished T-20, 11 strokes back in a Champions Tour event.
And yet he’s not leading this tournament because the rest of the field is flailing about. He’s leading because he’s taking charge.
He fired a 4-under 32 on his front nine to build a four-stroke lead. He was aggressive, creative, smart, daring and accurate – all the best of Phil Mickelson over the years and none of the worst.
Over an 18-hole stretch going back to his second nine Friday, Mickelson was 10-under par. With par being 72, that equates to a 62 … which would be the lowest round ever recorded in any major championship.
In short, he was as perfect as one could be on his front nine, and he was so on a course that does not lend itself to perfection.
The question, of course, is where did this come from? The way he tells it, his focus over the last few months has been on … focus — staying present on every shot. He says he’s played upwards of 45 holes a day, challenging himself to maintain focus on every shot, so that when he only has to play 18, it would be like a batter taking off the weight leaving the on-deck circle.
Still he had to navigate the back nine at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which includes a five-hole finishing stretch that is considered by many to be the toughest in golf.
He started the back with a birdie at 10, pushing his lead to a staggering five strokes.
And then …
A makeable birdie putt missed at 11 followed by a bogey at 12 and a double at 13 after snap-hooking his tee shot into the water.
He went from staring down a putt for a six-stroke to lead to having his lead trimmed to just 1 in a matter of three holes.
That is Kiawah.
The question quickly became: How would Mickelson respond heading into that brutal 5-hole stretch?
A short miss for birdie at 14 stung. So did an average approach at 15 after a 327-yard drive. Then he put his tee shot at 16 under a golf cart. Missed another makeable birdie putt at 17. And sprayed his approach at 18 left, leading to a tricky up and down that only Phil Mickelson could make (which he did).
It wasn’t pretty, but it was par, par, par, par, par.
He wasn’t going to win the tournament over that stretch, but he could have lost it. And he didn’t.
He started the day at -5, tied for the lead, he ended it at -7, one stroke ahead.
There are two ways to look at it: Phil Mickelson holds a narrow lead going into the final round of the PGA Championship; or Phil Mickelson blew nearly all of a 5-shot lead and now clings to a 1-shot edge.
Had you told him prior to Saturday’s round he’d be in the lead at the end of the day, he’d have taken it.
Sunday, we will be treated to an epic final pairing: Mickelson vs. Koepka — the second-best golfer of this generation vs. the guy trying to catch him at five career majors.
Past vs. present.
Who you got?
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