SHANGHAI, China – Phil Mickelson was unwinding from a day of high energy and quick turnarounds, one that took him from a two-shot deficit against Tiger Woods to a two-shot lead over the final eight holes Saturday in the HSBC Champions.
In the quiet of the clubhouse dining room, he marveled at how much the crowds have grown in the three years he has been coming to Sheshan International. And he could only imagine what it would be like Sunday, when he played in the final group with Woods for the first time in more than four years.
Then he smiled and raised his glass in a mock toast.
“And he’s got to give me one shot a side,” Mickelson said.
A rivalry that was renewed six weeks ago in Atlanta continued halfway around the world in China when Woods stalled with pars and Mickelson poured in three birdies over his last five holes for a 5-under 67 and a two-shot lead over Woods and Nick Watney in the final World Golf Championship of the year.
“I know we are both looking forward to it,” said Mickelson, who was at 14-under 202. “I think it will be a fun day, and we are excited to be playing in the last group here in China.”
It will be the first time the world’s top two players have been in the final group since their Duel at Doral in 2005, when Woods rallied from a two-shot deficit in the final round to win by one.
Woods wasn’t terribly pleased to be in this position. He took his first outright lead of the tournament with a 15-foot birdie putt on the eighth hole. After another 15-foot birdie putt on the 10th, his lead was up to two.
That turned out to be his last birdie of the round. He missed one opportunity on the par-5 14th, badly missed on a 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th and finished his round by driving into the rough and hitting his approach into the bunker on the par-5 18th, having to save par for a 2-under 70.
“I didn’t putt as well as I did the first two days,” said Woods, who opened with 67-67. “And the back nine, I didn’t take advantage of the par 5s and 16. I hit it in there stiff and missed that one as well. Consequently, I was three shots worse.”
Not to be forgotten is Watney, who completes this All-American — for that matter, all-Californian — final group. After a three-putt bogey on the 17th, the 28-year-old sank a 50-foot eagle on the 18th for a 70 to join Woods at 12-under 204.
“I suppose I’m kind of the odd man out there,” Watney said. “But the goal in golf is always to improve, and tomorrow will be a big step for me. Regardless of the outcome, I’ll get a chance to watch these guys and see how they handle themselves, and hopefully, I can handle myself well, too.”
Ryan Moore, who qualified for the HSBC Champions by winning for the first time on the PGA Tour in August, had a 70 and was another shot back. Lee Westwood, who is leading the Race to Dubai on the European tour, did himself a huge favor with eight birdies in a round of 65, leaving him well in the mix at 10-under 206.
“This is a golf course that you can make up a lot of shots over a round,” Westwood said.
Mickelson didn’t have that many to make up in the third round, starting only one shot behind and briefly sharing the lead on a couple of occasions with three birdies in the opening five holes. His lone bogey came on the ninth, and even then he found a positive.
Trapped against the bushes, Lefty had to invert a wedge to play right-handed back to the fairway. It reminded him of the 12th hole at Doral in March, when he also played a right-handed shot on his way to winning his first World Golf Championship.
“I thought that might have been a good omen, even though it led to a bogey,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson came to life with a lob wedge into the strong wind to 6 feet on the 14th, then smashing a tee shot so far on the 487-yard 15th that it went through the fairway and left him only a 9-iron, which he hit to 15 feet. He pumped his fist when the birdie putt fell, giving Mickelson his first outright lead of the week.
He hustled across the street toward the 16th tee and said in a singsong voice, “Somebody’s got his putter back.” He is still gleaming from going back to his old style of putting, which carried him to victory in the Tour Championship six weeks ago and helped him to an unbeaten record in the Presidents Cup.
It has taken him to another chapter in the best rivalry of this generation, one that Woods still owns.
They were paired this year at the Masters, where both lit up Augusta National with birdies until they ran out of holes, having started too far off the lead. Mickelson won a tournament the last time they played together in a final round, at the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship (although they weren’t in the final group).
Woods has attracted the largest crowds, but not by much. And with them separated by only one group, there was hardly an empty space along the ropes over two holes.
Woods was asked if he was excited about a potential battle between No. 1 and No. 2.
“Yeah,” he said. “We are right there. Unfortunately, I’m two back. But it’s just one of those things where Nick and I have got a chance tomorrow, and we’re going to have to go out there and obviously play well.”