Mickelson takes risks, and it pays off

Phil Mickelson reacts to an eagle at Augusta National's 13th.

Phil Mickelson reacts to an eagle at Augusta National's 13th.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Add a few more frames to Phil Mickelson’s Masters highlight reel. There’s no course that Mickelson loves more than Augusta National, because there’s nowhere that so rewards his risk-taking style.

Mickelson’s back-nine 30 Saturday gave him a 66, his best round at Augusta National since 1996. He’s at 8-under 208, one behind Peter Hanson, the world’s 25th-ranked player.

“This was a really fun day,” Mickelson said. “It gives me an opportunity to make something special happen tomorrow.”

He’s had his share of such moments here, at this event that has so defined his career. He won his first major here in 2004 with an 18-foot birdie putt on the final green. His emotional victory two years ago was finished with a tearful hug from his wife, Amy, who was battling breast cancer.

Before this year’s first round, Mickelson came to the first tee some six hours early to watch the Big Three – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – hit their ceremonial tee shots. There’s little doubt Mickelson will assume that duty one day several decades in the future, should he so choose.

A victory Sunday would give Mickelson a fourth green jacket, tying him with Palmer and Tiger Woods. Nice company there.

Mickelson’s third round started with nine consecutive pars that were the result of wise shots to tucked pins. Pars aren't what Masters victories are made of, though. The run to his last victory started with an eagle-eagle-birdie stretch on Nos. 13-15 on that Saturday in 2010.

This year, Mickelson birdied the 12th, then hit 5-iron from 235 yards to 25 feet on the par-5 13th.

He made that curling 25-footer to tie the lead at 6 under par, then parred 14 before executing another memorable shot. Augusta National already possesses Mickelson’s 6-iron, the one he used for that famous shot from pine straw on 13 in 2010’s final round. The Green Jackets may ask for his lob wedge after this Masters is completed.

He used it for that sky-high flop shot from behind the par-5 15th green. His 64-degree wedge, which he put in the bag at Doral, has a special grind on the sole that makes it easier for him to hit shots with the face wide open. His ball seemed to climb two stories before plunging near the hole, trickling some 6 feet by. The birdie put him at 7 under par and again tied him with Hanson for the lead.

Graeme McDowell called that shot “a joke” on Twitter. “I can't tell you how good that was,” he wrote.

Hanson, playing in the group ahead of Mickelson, birdied the final hole by hitting 6-iron to a foot. Mickelson matched by hooking a 7-iron around trees and making a 20-foot putt.

Hanson and Mickelson are familiar foes. Mickelson beat the Swede, 4 and 2, in singles at the 2010 Ryder Cup. They were paired for this tournament’s first two rounds. Hanson, a four-time winner on the European Tour, has just one top-10 in a major (T-7, 2011 U.S. Open).

Early Thursday, it looked like at least one of them – Mickelson – wasn’t destined for Sunday’s final pairing. He was 4 over par after just 10 holes after a triple bogey on the 10th. He fought his way back to a 74, then got under par with Friday’s 68. Those final eight holes on Thursday were his turning point.

“At some point on this golf course I’m going to get hot and make some birdies and maybe an eagle here or there, but I’ve got to be in positions where it moves me up the leaderboard and not just gets me to the weekend,” he said. “The way I fought back on Thursday, keeping me in it, allowed me to make a run to shoot up the leaderboard.”

Mickelson is closing in on another green jacket, while the two players who were the pre-tournament focal points, Woods and Rory McIlroy, will start Sunday with little more to play for than pride.

There’s no doubt Mickelson will enjoy the round at his personal playground. Hanson, who missed the cut in his only other Masters appearance, will have to overcome the perils associated with the pursuit of a first major.

“There’s nothing greater in professional golf than to be in the final group on Sunday at the Masters,” Mickelson said. “It’s something that you just look forward to.”

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