HUMBLE, Texas – Phil Mickelson is tied for the lead in the Houston Open as he prepares for next week’s Masters.
He doesn’t see why he can’t win ‘em both.
Mickelson shot his lowest round in two years on Saturday, tying the course record with a 9-under 63 to join Scott Verplank atop the leaderboard through three rounds on the Tournament Course at Redstone.
Verplank, coping with soreness in his left wrist, shot his second straight 65 to catch Mickelson at 13-under par. Aaron Baddeley (66) and second-round leader Chris Kirk (69) were one stroke back, and defending champion Anthony Kim and David Hearn (66) were two behind.
Mickelson, the defending Masters champion, has won the last four events during which he had a round of 64 or better, dating to the 2006 BellSouth Classic. That year, he earned his second green jacket the following week and is the last player to win the event before Augusta and the Masters in the same year.
The Houston Open became the run-up tournament to the first major in 2007, and Mickelson is here for the fourth straight year. He said winning the week before the ‘06 Masters gave him a valuable boost, and he sees no disadvantage in trying to duplicate that feat.
“People have talked about winning the week before a major as not necessarily the greatest thing, because it takes away energy, or what have you,” Mickelson said. “I felt like in ‘06, it was really a benefit to gain the momentum and confidence of winning a golf tournament right before, especially the Masters.”
Mickelson would be more hesitant to play here if he didn’t know Augusta so well, and if the Redstone layout was dramatically different. But Houston organizers have groomed their course to simulate Augusta conditions, with fast greens, shaved mounds, light rough and fairways mowed toward the tee.
“Maybe before the U.S. Open, the course setups might be so different, it might not be the best thing,” Mickelson said. “But I feel like the momentum that you can gain by playing well at the Houston Open can be a real plus heading to Augusta.”
Mickelson equaled the record score set by Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott in 2008 and matched by Jimmy Walker on Thursday. Lefty had gone 153 consecutive rounds without shooting that low, going back to a 62 in the third round at the 2009 Northern Trust Open.
“To get a good round like this means a lot,” Mickelson said. “Also, to have the challenge to be in contention, to be in the final group, have an opportunity to win, I really enjoy that opportunity. I think it’s good for me to be in that position heading into next week, too.”
He’ll have an unlikely final-round playing partner in the 46-year-old Verplank, who’s dealing with yet another debilitating injury in a career marked by health issues. He has diabetes, underwent elbow surgeries in 1992 and ‘96, suffered from plantar fasciitis in his right foot in 2004 and now has soreness in his left wrist, resulting from a degenerative bone condition.
“My problem is, I haven’t been able to maintain strength,” Verplank said. “In the last three or four weeks, I’ve been able to start doing stuff, where I can at least hold onto some strength. I can just tell by the way I hit shots.”
He’s making only his fourth start of the year, and he’s still managed to hit 34 of 42 fairways this week and is tied with Baddeley for second among the field in total putts (80).
“My attitude has been great, because I’ve been thrilled to be here,” Verplank said. “You know, I know what I’m capable of.”
Mickelson or Verplank could buck two trends on tour. A player in his 20s has won each of the last three weeks, and three events this year have had first-time winners.
While Mickelson would love to win, he came here more concerned with improving his shot visualization in time for next week.
“What I’m working on is what I did best today, which was really seeing the shot and executing and holding that picture throughout the swing,” Mickelson said. “I probably did that better today than I have in a long time.”
He’s also done some tinkering in preparation for the Masters. He tested two drivers – with different lengths and lofts – on the practice range before his round, and he’s leaning toward having both in his bag at Augusta.
“There’s a good chance I’ll have that,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson birdied three of his first four holes on Saturday, under cloudy skies with virtually no wind.
Paired with Lee Westwood, he lost his tee shot left on No. 6, a dogleg left. Mickelson took a drop out of a native area, but then saved par by holing a 50-yard pitch from behind the green.
When the ball disappeared, Westwood’s caddie, Billy Foster, kneeled and bowed to Mickelson in joking homage as the huge gallery exploded into a loud roar.
Mickelson birdied the par-5 8th, then sank a 22-footer on the par-3 9th to reach 9 under. He dropped his 100-yard approach to No. 10 within 9 feet and made that putt, completing a stretch of eight birdies in 16 holes spanning the second and third rounds.
“A fun round,” Mickelson said. “I got off to a good start, birdied the first hole and was able to kind of maintain the momentum.”