SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Phil Mickelson held his head in horror on the ninth green, his 18th of the day. His 26-foot putt birdie putt for 59 curled around the right edge of the hole and stayed out.
“It’s crushing,” Mickelson said, “because you don’t get that chance very often.”
David Duval, who once shot golf’s magical number of 59, summed it up best, tweeting “he just got robbed.”
No one would disagree.
In addition to “crushing,” Mickelson used the adjectives “mortified” and “heartbreaking” to describe his round of 60. And yet he also was “ecstatic.” Has anyone shooting 60 ever run such a gamut of emotions?
Mickelson was attempting to become the sixth golfer to shoot 59 in a PGA Tour event. He settled for matching the TPC Scottsdale tournament record, one he already shared, with an 11-under-par 60 Thursday to take a four-stroke lead over five other golfers at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Mickelson, who started on the back nine, opened with four consecutive birdies and shot 29 on his first nine. It equaled the low back-nine score at TPC Scottsdale.
He caught a good break at the 11th hole when his tee shot drifted right but stayed in bounds. In 2005, when he previously shot 60 here, he fanned his drive to the right, had to take an unplayable lie and made a lengthy putt to save par. This time he hit an 8-iron from 182 yards to 6 feet.
“Obviously, that’s the place to be,” he said, flashing a grin.
Mickelson, a two-time champion of this event, said he started thinking about 59 as he made the turn.
Mickelson chased golf’s holy grail with the vigor of Indiana Jones. Mickelson birdied Nos. 1, 3 and 4. He needed only two more birdies over the final five holes. His thought at the time was “done deal. I’m going to get this done,” he said afterward. In fact, he started thinking about going where no tour pro has gone before: 58. But he also admitted later that he felt the pressure mounting.
“There is a Berlin Wall-size barrier between 59 and 60,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson should know. He shot 59 at the 2004 PGA Grand Slam of Golf. But so far this season, Mickelson had struggled mightily. After another poor performance last week in San Diego, he called instructor Butch Harmon. They worked together on Wednesday. Whatever they did, it paid immediate dividends.
Mickelson also credited his scorching round to a new club in the bag. He added an 8.1 degree Callaway Razr Xtreme driver on Tuesday.
“Best thing I could’ve done,” he said. “My misses have become minuscule. You’re used to me missing way left and way right, and that’s true, but I haven’t seen that with this club.
“This could be a really big deal for me.”
Mickelson pointed to the par-4 17th, where water lines the left side of the hole. He drove the green to 35 feet and two-putted for birdie.
Overall, Mickelson had 12 one-putt greens and made 11 birdies, including at all four par-3 holes. He said he didn’t think he had ever had four deuces like that in one round before. He was right. The Tour’s crack media staff checked and he had three deuces on 25 occasions, but never all four.
Mickelson called his 6-iron tee shot at the 196-yard, par-3 seventh hole, the best of the day. “It’s a tucked little pin over the (left, front) bunker, and I hit it to 4 or 5 feet,” he said.
He made the putt to reach 11 under on the par-71 course.
Strolling down the eighth fairway to their tee shots, Mickelson and playing competitor Rickie Fowler chatted.
“I just wanted to keep it like a normal round,” Fowler said. “I feel like maybe when you have someone to talk to, it’s a little easier to keep your mind off of golf.”
After nailing a baby draw into the center of the fairway, Mickelson hit a wedge to the left side of the green. The putt at the ninth will be replayed over and over, but the 18-footer he left short and in the heart of the hole on No. 8 might be the one that keeps him up late at night.
“It’s downhill going towards the Valley. That putt historically is very quick,” Mickelson said. “I’ve never left it short before.”
Mickelson easily could’ve been deflated, but he was not. In fact, he stopped on the way to the ninth tee and asked a young fan, “Have I given you a ball yet?”
Afterward, caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay said Mickelson used nine balls during the round and gave eight of them to fans.
The threat of low scoring this week loomed after Bo Van Pelt shot a 59 in Wednesday’s pro-am. Record rainfall last week softened the course. Mickelson was waiting on the 17th tee a day earlier when Van Pelt’s drive hit the pin and stopped a foot away for a gimme eagle-2. “I said, ‘You go make a 3 on the last hole,’ and he did,” Mickelson said. “Did I listen to my own advice? No.”
It came down to the final hole, and Mickelson bashed another drive down the middle at the 464-yard, par-4 ninth. He stuck a gap wedge 26 feet left of the hole. When he stroked the putt for 59, Mickelson started walking after it. He pointed at the hole and began to raise his putter in celebration. He was sure it was good.
“Six feet to go, it was in the center; 3 feet to go, it was in the center; a foot to go, it was in the center,” Mickelson said. “I couldn’t envision which side of the hole it could possibly miss on.”
But it slid right and horseshoed out, leaving Mickelson on the precipice of joining one of golf’s most elite clubs. He grabbed the back of his head with his left hand. The crowd, wishing to see history, let out a collective groan. Mackay ended up on his hands and knees.
“I wanted it for him,” Mackay said.
“It was disappointing for everyone to not see that one go in on the last,” Fowler added.
Golf’s holy grail is still out there for Mickelson.
“I just knew I could do it,” Mickelson said, “and darn it, it just lipped out.”