LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s been well documented, but Phil Mickelson has yet to record a top-10 finish in a PGA Tour event this year.
He’ll aim a little higher Sunday, because after rallying for a third-round 67 Saturday, Mickelson is 10 under par, just three shots behind leader Rory McIlroy. A win would give Mickelson his sixth major championship.
“If I play the way I feel I can and shoot the number I believe I can, I’m in a position to win the golf tournament, and that’s what feels good,” Mickelson said. “You’ve got to go out and make birdies. You just have to get a hot hand.”
He didn’t have one for much of his third round. On a day that set the PGA Championship record for lowest single-round stroke average (69.5), Mickelson was even par for the day after making back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 11-12. He then made a par at the 13th, keeping him stuck at 6 under overall as everyone around him made their move.
Then, Mickelson made his move. He knocked in a 22-footer for birdie at the par-3 14th, which proved to be the spark. Birdies at the 15th (6 feet) and 16th (3 feet) followed, and after a two-putt par at No. 17, Mickelson almost didn’t need his putter at the 18th. His chip for eagle burned the edge, setting up one more birdie. It got him into Sunday’s next-to-last pairing, with practice-round buddy Rickie Fowler.
Mickelson started the day three shots back, and finished it three back. But at least he closed with some momentum.
“The birdie putt on 14 was huge for me,” he said. “I feel like every time I tee up this week I have that 7, 8, 9 under par round in me. I need to do that tomorrow, right from the start. I’ve got to be sharp, and I feel like I have got that low round in me.
“It’s so fun for me to be back in the thick of it, have a chance, being in contention heading into Sunday.”
Forward thinkingA forward tee box was used at No. 4 Saturday, making it a 292-yard driveable par 4, with most players giving it a go, many using 3-wood. More than 20 players found the putting surface with their drives, and seven converted eagle putts. None hit it closer than Lee Westwood, who came 2 feet from knocking it in the hole for an albatross. Yes, he made the eagle putt.
It was part of a combination of factors that made Saturday’s scoring conditions the best of the week: No wind, soft golf course because of the rain, accessible pins. It won’t last, predicts Kenny Perry.
“A lot of scoring opportunities, which is kind of typical. Saturday is usually the day they set it up and give us a chance to score,” said Perry, who had 69 to get to 3 under. “Tomorrow you’ll see dead opposite. You will see really severe pin placements and it’ll be a very severe test.”
Prior to Thursday, players sitting down for pretournament interviews were asked, among other things, which NFL player they’d like to be. Steve Stricker had perhaps the most unlikely answer (“I would say J.J. Watt”), but almost everybody else picked a quarterback, with Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson all popular choices.
None were as popular as Tom Brady, though.
“I’d be the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady,” said Keegan Bradley, not exactly an unbiased observer when it comes to his passion for Boston pro sports teams after attending Hopkinton (Mass.) High School.
Others picking Brady included Hunter Mahan, Jordan Spieth, Gary Woodland, and Webb Simpson. Canadian Graham DeLaet also chose Brady, but not because of anything having to do with football.
“Probably Tom Brady, because he’s married to Gisele,” DeLaet said.
Graeme McDowell made four birdies and 13 pars, but it was that other number on his scorecard that kept him from having an under-par round. McDowell took a quadruple-bogey 8 at the par 4 13th hole, which was only playing 341 yards Saturday.
The green at No. 13, though, is guarded by water front, left, and right, leaving very little margin for error. After laying up in the fairway with his drive, McDowell put his second shot in the water, took a penalty drop, then dumped another ball into the hazard. His third attempt finally found the green, and he two-putted from there.
“It’s a card-wrecker, a tournament-wrecker, a weekend-wrecker, all of the above,” McDowell told pga.com after his round. “Very disappointing. Otherwise, a great round.”
That devilish little hole is claiming its share of victims this week. Through three rounds, No. 13 ranks as the 13th-toughest hole at Valhalla, with 16 double bogeys and four scores higher than that (the dreaded “other”), as McDowell found out.
Hunter in hunt
Low round of the day was from Bernd Wiesberger and Hunter Mahan, each of whom had bogey-free 65s, matching the tournament’s best score. Mahan started the round in a tie for 38th, but birdies at Nos. 1, 4, 12, 14, 15, and 18 left him on the cusp of the top 10. He’s tied for 13th at 7 under. “Those putts that could have lipped out lipped in today,” Mahan said. “Making those 10- to 15-footers are what I need to do to shoot a good round.” . . . Of the top 41 names on the leader board after 54 holes, only one player shot over par in the third round. That was Jim Furyk, who had a 72 to drop one shot, back to 7 under . . . Predictably, Sean Foley is catching some heat from analysts who think Tiger Woods should drop him as instructor and find someone else. Foley told golf.com after Woods missed the cut with a second straight 74 that the issues are related to health and practice, not swing mechanics. “When you’re playing your 10th or 11th competitive round in five months, if 100 percent is what you want in terms of preparation and time to practice, he’s probably at what, 10 percent?” Foley said. “So when it doesn’t go from the range to the course, it’s quite easily understood.” . . . Nobody made more birdies Saturday than Brooks Koepka, who had nine of them while shooting a 66. That came even with a bogey at the par-5 18th hole . . . Pat Perez and Francesco Molinari both have been a model of mediocre consistency, each shooting 71-71-71 . . . How easy was Valhalla playing in the third round? High score was only a 4-over-par 75, by Brendon Todd.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.