LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ever have that feeling that you’re standing still when time is not, and the rest of the world is flying past you in the left lane? Those were the emotions Phil Mickelson was experiencing as he headed to the 14th tee at Valhalla Golf Club on Saturday, his hopes of winning the 96th PGA Championship stalling like an old beat-up clunker in a big-city rush hour.
He’d just played an easy stretch starting out on the back in 1 over, making par at the friendly, inviting 10th, making bogey at the par-4 11th, and failing to add a birdie at the short 13th.
Give ol’ Lefty a little credit, though. He can be stubborn, and eventually he’d find something. When his 20-footer dunked into the hole for birdie at the 14th, it was as if a switch had been flipped and the party started. Hey, better late than never. He’d birdie the next two holes and add one more coming home, even making a nice run at eagle for the second consecutive day at 18, to elbow his way to 4-under 67. It wasn’t as low as some others were going, and wasn’t enough to cut into Rory McIlroy’s three-shot lead, but at least he’ll begin Sunday with the leaders still somewhere in his sights.
So, what will it take for the big left-hander to seize his sixth major championship? Something very, very special. He has an opportunity, at the very least. Hope springs eternal, right? Mickelson, 44, who won this championship in 2005, said he feels as if there’s something magical inside him that has yet to percolate to the top.
Mickelson’s advantage heading into the final round? That’s easy: Experience. He’s been here many times, and owns more majors (five) than all the other players in the top 10 combined (four). You want the bad news? The man he is chasing has been red-hot, winning his last two starts, and Rory McIlroy’s confidence is somewhere next to the moon. Another guy ahead of him, Rickie Fowler, is a made-for-majors monster whom Mickelson himself helped create and groom, toughening him up with under-the-gun Tuesday money games.
Oh, as for all those experiences in the hunt for the Hall of Famer? Well, he hasn’t been there this season, hasn’t been “in the heat,” as he terms it. In fact, Sunday likely will produce his first top 10 of the season.
“I haven’t been in that position this year and I’m certainly going to feel some pressure tomorrow because I want to have an opportunity to make up for the entire year in one round,” he said. “Those five majors that I’ve won in the past really aren’t much help going into tomorrow’s round.”
Mickelson has had a bounce in his step since shooting 8-under 62 at Firestone last Sunday. He was well out of contention and well away from the spotlight. He looked to build on the momentum once he got to Valhalla, but was so nervous on the opening tee Thursday that he nearly blocked a drive over the Ohio line. “Horrific,” he called it. But soon after the rocky start, his confidence began to return. And the birdies have been piling up.
If he drives it well Sunday, it will set up a green-light situation in which he’ll be able to fire at pins, something that’s a tad odd for a major but dictated by the rains that have hovered over Louisville for two days.
Mickelson has had some good times in Kentucky – he led through 36 holes at Valhalla’s first PGA in 1996 and was part of a winning Ryder Cup team here in 2008 – and the fans have been squarely in his corner. Fellow competitor Bernd Wiesberger, who shot an impressive 66 alongside Mickelson on Saturday, said he enjoyed the scene and soaked up the atmosphere.
“Everybody is pulling for Phil,” Wiesberger said. “He played nicely down the stretch as well, which got the crowds fired up a little bit and was good. You know … I stayed a bit in the background and let him do his thing.”
There are three twenty-somethings at the top of the board, but a handful of players in their 40s, including Mickelson, did their best to stay relevant on Saturday. Steve Stricker (68) made three birdies against no bogeys and is tied for 10th at 8-under 205. Veteran Jim Furyk was within a shot of the lead at one point in the afternoon but played his last 11 holes in 2 over, signing for a disappointing 72. He’s a shot behind Stricker.
“Well, the fact that I just played my last 14 rounds under par and (had) been playing great, this one probably was a momentum killer,” Furyk said. “But we’ll regroup and get it going the other way.”
Furyk, who doesn’t keep it up with the likes of McIlroy, Fowler and Mickelson off the tee, said wet conditions at Valhalla have rendered the golf course extra long for medium-length hitters, and he simply has had difficulty keeping pace.
“It’s definitely stressing me out a touch,” he said.
Last summer in Scotland, at Muirfield, Mickelson came from five shots behind on Sunday, shooting 66 to capture the Open Championship, his fifth major. He played the round of his life in brutal winds and tough conditions. Sunday at Valhalla will be an entirely different test. There are birdies to be made out there, and Mickelson, who on Sunday will qualify for his 10th consecutive Ryder Cup team, knows he needs to come out firing.
“I’ve been waiting for that 7-, 8-, 9-under round to show up, and it hasn’t been there,” he said. “I need to do that tomorrow.
“That’s the bottom line.”