LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – Phil Mickelson birdied four of his last five holes Saturday to put himself in contention for his sixth major title, shooting a 4-under 67 that left him three shots behind leader Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship.
He’ll play in the next-to-last group on Sunday with Rickie Fowler looking to end his longest winless streak in more than a decade.
“I’ve put myself in a position now where 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,” the 44-year-old Hall of Famer said. “That’s what feels good.”
As usual, it was quite a ride for the guy who conceded early in the week that he’ll always be a streaky player.
A couple of birdies on the front side pushed his score lower. Back-to-back bogeys after the turn stymied his surge. Then, just like that, he got it going again, sparked by a 22-foot putt at the 14th.
“I needed something to get it going,” Mickelson said. “Knocking that one in gave me a little bit of momentum.”
He kept right on going at No. 15, where a 158-yard shot from the rough plopped down 6 feet from the flag for another birdie. The approach shot at the next hole was even better, as Mickelson zeroed in from 197 yards and left the ball merely 3 feet from the cup for his third straight birdie. He finished with one more on the par-5 18th, just missing a 45-footer for eagle, his knees buckling as the ball curled toward the hole but stayed just above it.
“It’s so fun for me to be back in the thick of it, have a chance, being contention heading into Sunday and not having to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to tee off — if I get to tee off,” Mickelson said. “It’s been a nice change.”
His last win came at the 2013 British Open, where he turned in one of the great closing rounds in major championship history at Muirfield, giving him the third leg of a career Grand Slam.
It’s been quite a struggle since then. Mickelson missed the cut at the Masters, a tournament he has won three times. He tied for 28th at the U.S. Open, nowhere close to completing his slam, his putting such a mess that he began experimenting with a claw grip. He needed a strong finish at Royal Liverpool just to finish tied for 23rd in the British Open, his hopes of keeping the claret jug pretty much doused in the first two rounds.
But Mickelson is used to these sorts of ups and downs.
That’s pretty much been the trademark of his career.
Last week in the World Golf Championship, after another discouraging start, he suddenly turned in his best round of the year — a 62 in the final round.
Now, he’s looking for another finish like that at Valhalla.
“I just kept the momentum going throughout the round” at Firestone, Mickelson said. “I need to do that again tomorrow. That’s the bottom line.”
Considering the guy he’s chasing, Mickelson knows if will take a low round to claim the Wanamaker Trophy.
McIlroy, who leads at 13-under 200, is the top-ranked player in the world, a three-time major champion and has won his last two tournaments — a wire-to-wire triumph at the British Open, followed by a comeback victory at Firestone.
The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland is used to being a front-runner.
Mickelson knows he’ll have to chase him down — Lefty just hopes he remembers how.
“I haven’t won this year. That is a negative,” said Mickelson, who hasn’t gone so long without a victory since 2003. “I haven’t been in the heat. I haven’t been in that position this year and I’m certainly going to feel some pressure tomorrow, because I want to have the opportunity to make up for the entire year in one round.
McIlroy, meanwhile, found an extra gear, closing with three birdies on the last four holes for a 4-under 67 and a one-shot lead over Bernd Wiesberger. Right behind were Rickie Fowler and Lefty. Still very much in the picture were Jason Day, Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen.
“Tomorrow standing on the first tee is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake because you don’t have that … it is going to be a shootout,” said McIlroy, who was at 13-under 200. “You know the conditions are soft. Guys are going to make birdies. And you know that you’re going to have to make birdies as well.”
He did his part late in the round, rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole, hitting 9-iron from 172 yards that landed with a splat next to the hole for an easy birdie on the 16th hole, and getting up-and-down from a bunker on the final hole.
“It’s not the biggest lead I’ve ever had,” McIlroy said. “But I’m still in control of this golf tournament.”
Sunday is shaping up as a thriller, typical of the final major of the year.
Matsuyama, Oda tied for 56th
Hideki Matsuyama carded five birdies against four bogeys for a round of 1-under 70 on Saturday, ending his third round 13 strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy in a tie for 56th place along with countryman Komei Oda at the season’s last major.
Matsuyama and Oda were in a seven-way tie at even-par 213 after 54 holes
The 22-year-old Matsuyama, who teed off early in light rain, came out attacking a front nine that had given him fits in both previous rounds. He hit pure iron shots into the rain-softened greens to birdie three of his first four holes, all with putts inside of seven feet.
Though he continued to create scoring chances, further birdies eluded him such as on No. 5, where his well-struck attempt from eight feet stayed up after making a near 360-degree tour around the lip.
The light but persistent rain became a downpour while Matsuyama was on No. 7, causing a delay of several minutes while the worst of it passed and excess water was squeegeed from the putting surface. His birdie putt from 19 feet on the par 5 burned the edge of the cup, as did his 14-foot effort on No. 9, leaving him with pars and a score of three under at the turn.
Matsuyama picked up a birdie on No. 10 after knocking a wedge shot close from a saturated fairway, but a number of small errors later in the back nine resulted in dropped shots.
He three-putted for bogey at No. 11 and took another bogey at No. 12 after he missed the green and sent a pitch shot skidding to the far fringe.
Though the rain showers held off for most of Matsuyama’s second half, he continued to struggle down the stretch. A poorly hit pitch shot at No. 16 led to a bogey, and despite hitting a brilliant approach from the left rough to the No. 17 green, his birdie attempt slid well past the hole and he missed the seven-footer for par coming back.
“I wasted some opportunities on the back nine and failed to save par when I should have,” Matsuyama said.
“My swing felt good for the most part. But sometimes the results were erratic.”
Oda (71) carded a double bogey and two bogeys against four birdies — including a rare birdie at the 505-yard par-4 No. 16, set up by a 218-yard approach shot to within seven feet of the hole.
Oda managed another birdie at No. 18, erasing the double bogey that resulted from hitting his approach shot on No. 15 into the creek alongside the green.
“It’s unfortunate, because (on No. 15) it wasn’t that bad of a shot,” Oda said. “I wanted to attack the pin with a fade coming in from the left. But it ended up hitting the last tree (and dropping into the water).
“I’m happy I was able to get back to even for my round, but I want to go under par tomorrow.”