McCabe: Stars shine Saturday at Pebble

Actor Bill Murray reacts to his missed putt on the fifth hole during the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Actor Bill Murray reacts to his missed putt on the fifth hole during the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Had it been Sunday, three straight birdies on Pebble Beach’s famed inward nine would have ignited massive roars.

Had it been Sunday, the birdies at 17 and 18 would have caused commotion enough to drown out the noise of crashing waves at Stillwater Cove.

But what Tiger Woods did by shooting 32 on the back, then supporting it with a quiet, but clean front-nine 35, was scripted on a Saturday. An efficient 5 under 67 it was – no denying that. And certainly it cut into his deficit and got him within four of Charlie Wi’s lead at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, yet for all that, there is this truism: Saturday at this iconic tournament is not about the golf; it is about the golfers who show us that the game is but a vehicle to deliver fun.

Those golfers on this cold, gray, raw day wore rain gear that had leafy camouflage on it (take a bow, Bill Murray). They body-surfed with fans at the 15th tee (the act never gets tired, George Lopez) and they cracked funnier and funnier jokes the worse they played (that would be you, Ray Romano). They flashed power and finesse (impressive, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers). Oh, and they carried their football-is-serious-business looks onto the course (Bill Belichick and Nick Saban) until the crowd loosened them up and they bared a bit of personality – Saban donned in a classic red and gray argyle sweater, Belichick in a Pebble Beach Golf Links gray hoodie.

What? You didn’t think they sold hoodies at the shops here? Belichick smiled, which would perhaps pass as news to the football world, but here in the grasp of a golf’s magical lure, he was not a stone-faced tactician but rather a role-player in a festive show of good cheer.

“It was a fun day to play golf out here,” said Phil Mickelson and while the lefthander says that a lot – perhaps 263 times a year – the fact is, it was an entertaining day. True, the weather was like a bad steak – cold on each side and raw in the middle – but for some reason, that hardly matters on Saturday of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

True, the good golf that elicited excitement was provided by a source of great energy, the inimitable Woods, for he began the day at 6 under with 16 players ahead of him, and he ended it at 11 under, but only Wi (15 under) and Ken Duke (12 under) leading him. Birdies at 13, 14, and 15, then two more at 17 and 18 got him to the turn in good form, but finishing with seven consecutive pars didn’t put a smile on his face.

But he tossed a wet towel on this joy by acting as if he had tossed the tournament away.

“I didn’t hit it as well as I did the last two days,” Woods said.

Those who didn’t hit it well at all seemed to have the most fun, which is why this tournament is special. Truth is, it has to be fun because even Belichick was smiling at the end. What’s more, he was talking, too, a circle of reporters surrounding off the 18th green minutes after the Patriots’ coach and his partner, Ricky Barnes, had shot 66 to push to 22 under and in a tie for seventh.

“Funny, but all anyone has asked me for three days is, ‘Does he talk?’ “ said Barnes, laughing. “Yeah, he talks. He’s really a very nice guy and, no surprise, but he’s very coachable. He asks, ‘What do I do?’ and we tell him where to hit it and he does.”

With rounds of 66 at Spyglass and 60 at Monterey Peninsula backed up by the 66 at Pebble, Barnes and Belichick aren’t in contention to win, not with Padraig Harrington and J.P. McManus rolling in front at 31 under. But only 25 of the 156 teams make the cut here, so it’s quite an accomplishment, though one would hardly suggest it eases the pain of Belichick’s Super Bowl loss a week ago.

What has slowly eased the pain of a PGA Tour winless drought that dates back to September 2009 is the way in which Woods has shown large doses of great form. He nearly won the Aussie Open in November, played superbly at the Presidents Cup, then in early December captured a low-key, 18-man tournament that is his own charity event. That wasn’t official, so Woods is still chasing that feeling that used to be with him nearly every week.

“The ultimate goal is to win a golf tournament,” Woods said. “That’s why we play, to be there, and that’s why I train as hard as I do. I’ve been putting myself in these positions (to win) and it feels good.”

He thrust himself into prime position with an outward nine that saw him knock down a handful of birdie putts between 15 and 25 feet. Roars accompanied each roll, but as this was going on, Mickelson was involved in things on the other side of Pebble Beach. Though not quite as explosive as Woods’ 67, Mickelson was still effective – if you don’t count the par 5 second, that is.

With nearly 230 yards left in at the 509-yard, par 5, the lefthander chose 5 wood, but later conceded he should have hit a 4-iron short of the green.

That’s because even in the cool, damp air, his shot covered the entire distance, took a wild hop, and got buried in thick hay left and long of the green. Was he surprised it carried that far?

Mickelson offered a slight smile and said, “My caddie wasn’t, but I was.”

Clearly accepting the blame, the lefthander then showed why he is always a thrill ride. Unable to play his shot, Mickelson took an unplayable lie, dropped in position where he was right up against the out-of-bounds, and then pulled off a lob shot up and over a big branch of a tree that nearly scraped the gray sky.

“How about that shot?” said playing competitor Kevin Na, and nearly everyone in the gallery agreed that it was vintage Mickelson.

Ah, but Mickelson went from thrill of victory to agony of defeat emotions in a matter of seconds, because he misfired on the 8-foot putt and bogeyed what is easily the softest hole at Pebble Beach.

Undaunted, as he often is, Mickelson birdied three tough holes the rest of the way – the par 3 fifth, par 4 eighth, and par 3 17th – only to keep the crowd guessing at the par 5 18th. There, Mickelson drove it right into a bunker, then hit an escape shot a hair thin and watched it slide along the ground and into the bunker down the left side.

At 9 under, Mickelson clearly needed another birdie to put more pressure on Wi, but what’s more, scoreboard-watchers knew he’d get within one of Woods with something good at the 18th. But going bunker to bunker wasn’t what fans had in mind, though wife Amy was watching among the crowd and laughed. “The Phil way,” is how she described this final-round thrill ride, which saw Mickelson blast his third shot into the fairway, then get it up-and-down from 40 yards to save par.

Down by six shots, perhaps, but hardly out, Mickelson is forever the optimist.

“I know that I’m quite a few shots back,” he said, “but I also know that on this golf course you can come out and get a quick start.”

He wore a smile, as much because that’s his nature as it is that Mickelson understands what this is all about. It was Saturday at the AT&T and while his 2 under 70 had kept him somewhat in contention, Mickelson knew it was a day for names like Murray and Lopez, Romano and Romo, Belichick and Rodgers, to deliver the entertainment to golf fans.

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