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Lefty faces uphill climb to catch Tiger, leaders on final day

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It must be like hearing the same joke, over and over and over.

No matter where world No. 2 Phil Mickelson went during his round on Saturday, vestiges of Tiger Woods rang in his ears, appeared before his eyes, and maybe even danced a little jig in his brain.

After starting the day in a tie for second place, Mickelson stood on the tee of the drivable par-4 fourth at Pebble Beach Golf Links when a male fan yelled out to him, quite possibly with a bit of derision, after Lefty pulled an iron for his tee shot.

"Tiger hit 3-wood," the fan barked, challenging Mickelson's manhood.

Mickelson, unable to resist, touched the club head with his hand, turned and yelled right back, playfully, "It's plenty, plenty."

Turns out, he was right about the club and the yardage, but he came up well short of Woods and the other leaders the rest of the way, shooting a sputtering 73 to fall seven shots behind leader Dustin Johnson at the 110th U.S. Open and into a distant sixth place.

After putting himself in prime position to win the one missing title that he values more than any other, any Mickel-Slam hopes for the reigning Masters winner took a huge detour into the bunkers and wispy rough along the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean.

This week marks the third start in succession that Mickelson has been presented with a chance to unseat his rival as the top player, and it looks like the shutout will continue. As if that wasn't enough, through the middle section of his front nine, Mickelson could hear the screams wafting across the water as Woods staged a textbook rally on his closing holes, just as the round came crashing down on Lefty like a rogue wave.

After making bogeys on his first two holes, Mickelson was still looking for some magic when he started the toughest stretch of the course along the cliffs. He jacked his tee shot on the difficult ninth into a fairway bunker, and had no chance of reaching a green that's the size of a spilled Budweiser. Mickelson's 8-iron shot, intended as a layup, slammed into the lip and trickled five yards out of the trap into the deep rough. He wanted to make sure he didn't hit it fat and pretty much succeeded.

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"I caught it thin, all right, and it went right into the lip," he said.

A couple of holes earlier, a ship anchored nearby in the ocean was emblazoned with a banner evoking the memory of Bobby Jones, a name Mickelson had mentioned after his 66 in the second round put him right back in the mix. Mickelson on Saturday mostly channeled Davy Jones.

His next shot on the ninth, from the deep rough, almost sailed off the cliff and into the rocks below, and he had to flip a wedge upside-down to hack the ball out of the thigh-high hay, right-handed. By the time he cleaned up the mess, he'd made a double-bogey and was 2 over, seven shots off the lead.

Then came the second aural bit of salt for the wound. As Mickelson played the 10th hole, which is located a mile or two from the Pebble Beach clubhouse and about 100 yards from the town of neighboring Carmel-By-The-Sea, the loudest roar of the week wafted his way.

The din from the waves, stiffening onshore wind, chirping seagulls and mumbling gallery members could not drown out what had taken place on the polar-opposite end of the course: Woods had reached the 18th in two and made birdie.

It was an awful earful. Mickelson, meanwhile, had to make a 10-footer to salvage a par. Graeme McDowell and Johnson, playing in the groups behind him, weren't giving up any ground, either.

"I fought hard, I didn't play well," Mickelson said. "I didn't hit it as well as I did yesterday, so I had to fight pretty hard to get some up and downs -- some ridiculous up and downs -- to keep it where I was at. To keep it within striking distance."

Phil Mickelson shoots a 73 on Saturday, putting him seven strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson. (AP)  
Phil Mickelson shoots a 73 on Saturday, putting him seven strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson. (AP)  
Well, that might be wishful thinking.

It was an uphill climb all the way, starting from when he three-jacked the first hole. Facing a four-footer to save his bogey at the second, Mickelson stared at his feet for several odd moments, trying to hit a mental reset button, doubtlessly aware that the tournament was slipping away.

"It was just little things," he said, mentioning a pair of three-putt greens early. "I gave shots back here and there."

Being an Open setup, there aren't many places to make them up out there, either. He was doing all he could just to scrape out pars, including epic saves on Nos. 10 and 14.

"Those were salty," he said, grinning.

So was the end of his day -- quite literally. He made another Mickelsonic par save on the difficult 17th with a deft pitch shot, and crept within five shots of the leaders with the par-5 18th up next. He took an aggressive line with a 3-wood off the tee, overcooked it and the ball tricked into the rocks of the Pacific and into a lie the NBC crew called "seaweed salad." Mickelson carved an iron into the green from 242 yards and somehow mustered as par, but because he took a tour of the kelp beds, he'd wasted a huge chance to make up ground yet again. It was the second time in three days that he launched a ball into the brine.

Mickelson was unable to hazard a guess as to what score he might have to shoot to have a shot Sunday. Johnson's stellar 66 on Saturday and the fact that he's looking for his third win at Pebble Beach in 15 months might indicate that he'll be tough to catch.

"Sunday at the Open, a lot of things can happen," he said, sounding like he was hoping the words were true, rather than really believing them.

"I'll be off with the leaders and I need to get hot in those first seven holes that you can make birdies. You can make up a lot of ground if you make birdies Sunday at the U.S. Open. It will be challenging to make up that many shots.

"I didn't expect to be that far behind, but Dustin and Graeme have played exceptional golf."

As for Mickelson on Sunday, not so much.

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