NORTON — Even when Phil Mickelson appears to be at his worst off the tee, he can save his round with a remarkable short game.
Two early birdies had the first-round co-leader near the top, but Mickelson followed that with wildness — he missed four straight fairways, none close. He made two bogeys, then a double at the par-3 16th when his tee shot bounced back into the hazard.
Two closing birdies somehow let Mickelson sign for an even-par 71. It was hard to tell which round gave him more pride.
“That was one of my best numbers right there, because I was playing terrible. Sometimes when you lose it, I could have easily shot myself out of the tournament,” Mickelson said. “I fought hard and was able to find it there in the end to give me confidence into the weekend.
“I feel like I know now what I want to do with my golf swing heading into the weekend. I’m putting unbelievable. If I’m able to play tomorrow the way I believe I’m going to, I’m going to look back on that stretch as being key to the entire tournament.”
The shot everyone was talking about was the flop Mickelson hit from 100 feet at the 11th, which spun back to 2 feet and led to a tap-in par, part of six one-putts in a seven-hole stretch. It left playing partners Adam Scott and Tiger Woods laughing on the course.
“He pulled it off,” said Woods, who had a 67 and is a shot behind Mickelson, at 7 under. “That’s what he does.”
Close call for McIlroy
What a difference a year makes. That’s Rory McIlroy in a nutshell. He led the Deutsche Bank Championship at the halfway point in 2012, opening 65-65 in a tournament he would go on to win, one of his four tour victories last season.
This year, he dumped his second shot to the par-5 18th hole in the hazard, took a penalty drop, sent his next over the green, then failed to get up-and-down from there. The sloppy 7 gave him a 71, and put him squarely on the cut line at 1 under. He would make it on the number.
“I’m getting a little frustrated, obviously, and a little impatient,” McIlroy said. “It’s tough because I do feel like I’m really, really close.”
McIlroy hasn’t had any trouble making birdies; he has 10 through 36 holes. But seven bogeys and the closing double on Saturday speaks to a series of mistakes that have trailed him most of a very trying season. He’s still looking for his first win.
“I’ve hit the ball really well, I just haven’t scored,” McIlroy said. “There’s a difference between hitting the ball well and scoring well. I’ve done one of those right, and the other just hasn’t been sharp enough, I guess.”
Bradley bears down
Keegan Bradley is starting to develop a comfort level at TPC Boston. His second-round 65 was his fourth straight round in the 60s here, dating to last year, when he closed 63-69. Combine that with his 69-65 start this week, and that’s 18 under par over his last four trips, a 72-hole total that would have won six of the first 10 Deutsche Bank Championships.
“This is the best I’ve played here so far,” Bradley said. “My game feels like it’s in really, really good shape. It’s the best I’ve felt in a while.”
Good thing, because he has plenty of friends and family rooting him on here. The tournament sponsor supplied the Vermont native and Hopkinton High graduate with 150 tickets for the week.
Steve Stricker has extra incentive to play well in a tournament that’s been good to him in the past (win in 2009, five other top-15 finishes). He’s 11th on the points list for the Presidents Cup, and the top 10 after the Deutsche Bank Championship automatically qualify for the team, which will host the international squad Oct. 3-6 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Fred Couples will announce his two captain’s picks on Wednesday.
“I’d like to make that team on my own. That’s my goal this week, to get back in there, in the top 10,” said Stricker. “That’s my focus.”
Stricker shot 68 on Saturday and is tied for ninth at 8 under. The top 10 on the Presidents Cup points list ahead of Stricker, in order: Tiger Woods, Brandt Snedeker, Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Bradley, Jason Dufner, Bill Haas, Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson, and Zach Johnson.
If Ian Poulter wants to play in the third playoff event, he’ll need a decent finish. Just don’t ask him how decent.
“I don’t even know where I need to finish this week to move forward. I don’t care,” Poulter said. “If I go out and win this week then I know I’ll move forward. I know that for a fact.”
After a second-round 68, Poulter is also 8 under. He started the week No. 77 on the points list, and is projected to jump to 56th, inside the top 70 that he’ll need.
Another player outside the number coming in and having a good week is Ernie Els, who shot 69 and is 7 under. Els was No. 91 at the start of the tournament, and is projected through two rounds to jump to 78th. So he’ll need to improve.
“Obviously it’s a big week for me to move ahead,” Els said. “I knew I needed to have my game.”
A Scott revival
Masters champion Adam Scott recovered nicely from his opening 73. He had five front-nine birdies and shot 66 to make the cut at 3 under . . . There were 76 players at 1 under or better. That means just 24 players were sent home. Among them: Rickie Fowler, Ken Duke, and Haas, who won the FedExCup two years ago . . . Sergio Garcia, Rory Sabbatini, and Sang-Moon Bae, the second group out in the morning off No. 1, were put on the clock at the 10th hole. They were back in position, Garcia said, by the 12th green . . . Only one member of the 100-player field made as few as seven cuts on the PGA Tour this season. That would be Derek Ernst, a 23-year-old rookie and winner of the Wells Fargo Championship. In 21 starts this year, Ernst’s next-best finish, after his win, was a tie for 44th at AT&T National. His scoring average (72.077) is ranked No. 173, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Ernst (72-80) finished last this week.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.