Mickelson two shots back at Scottish Open

Phil Mickelson during the third round of the Scottish Open.

Phil Mickelson during the third round of the Scottish Open.

INVERNESS, Scotland –– Any one of the 22 players at 10 under or better could win the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart on Sunday. But there are no prizes for guessing which one sponsor Aberdeen Asset Management would prefer.

Step forward Phil Mickelson, the highest ranked player in the field.

Mickelson got into contention courtesy of a 6-under-par 66 to stand tied for second at 14 under, two shots behind Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. Mickelson shares second along with South Africa’s Branden Grace, England's John Parry and Dane J.B. Hansen.

The left-hander has a shot at winning his first tournament in the British Isles, and just his second tournament in Europe.

Mickelson first tasted European success when he won the Tournoi Perrier Paris on the European Challenge Tour in 1993. Since then, he's won nothing. He has come close to winning this event, though, losing a playoff to Frenchman Gregory Havret at Loch Lomond in 2007.

While the sponsor would love for the highest-ranked player and marquee name to carry off the $740,000 first place prize, more importantly for Mickelson, it would be the perfect tune-up for next week’s Open Championship.

“My game is starting to feel good,” Mickelson said. “My short touch and lag game has gotten much better, my touch shots around the green have gotten really sharp.

“The area I’ve really enjoyed the challenge is off the tee, in cross winds, keeping the ball in play. I’ve driven the ball very well, and if I’m able to do that tomorrow I should be able to be aggressive into the pins and make some birdies.”

Of course, Castle Stuart is a different challenge from what lies in store at Muirfield next week. This faux links is wide open off the tee with very little trouble to drive into. Throw in a little wind and it’s not surprising the field is so bunched.

The World No. 8 didn’t require a driver for his 66. He took it out of the bag and used the same strategy that nearly saw him win last month’s US Open at Merion. It’s a tactic he plans to stick with.

“I’ve actually been using that (Callaway) X Hot 3-wood,” Mickelson said. “It goes a long way and it’s very easy for me to control. As accurate as I was with it, I’m anticipating doing the same thing next week. It’s what I did at the US Open. That extra 25 yards with the driver is oftentimes getting me in further trouble.”

Stenson matched Mickelson’s 66 to take his two-stroke lead. That score was two shots worse than his second-round 64, but much more rewarding.

“My striking was a bit better today,” Stenson said. “It’s as good as I’ve felt over the ball all season.”

Stenson has shown a welcome return to form of late. He won the SA Open Championship at the end of last year for his first win since the 2009 Players Championship, and his first European victory since 2007.

Stenson went into a slump after winning the Players, but has rededicated himself to the game.

“I’ve worked hard on my game but the difference for me is that I’ve laid down some long term goals,” he said.

Now ranked 32nd in the world from a career-high fourth in 2009, the affable Swede has his sights set on getting back into the upper echelons of the world order.

“I’m looking at getting into the top 10-15 by the end of the year,” he said.

A win here would help that cause.

Parry, Hansen and numerous others have much to play for Sunday. An exemption into next week’s Open Championship is on the cards for the winner, too, should the victor not already be exempt.

However, Philly Mick is obviously the man to beat.

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