PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Good thing Phil Mickelson’s wife and kids flew into town late Friday night. Otherwise, he would have been bored out of his gourd on Saturday.
Because tee times for the leaders have been pushed back close to 4 p.m. Pacific in order to ensure what figures to be a massive television audience on the East Coast, Mickelson will be cranking it up at 3:30 p.m. local time in the third round.
Thus, he’ll have to find a way to while away a few hours. Of course, it beats the heck out of the alternative,
“It’s cool,” he cracked. “It’s better than an 8 o’clock [a.m.] tee time.”
Rest assured, Lefty is clearly ready for prime time after matchng his career-low score in the Open.
Mickelson, the only player who can win the Grand Slam, shot the low round of the week by two shots on Friday with a 5-under 66 that jumped him 64 spots up the leaderboard and into a tie for second place, two strokes behind Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell.
Mickelson, who raked it all around the Pebble Beach Golf Links greens in the first round, was almost infallible on the putting surfaces a day later, reeling off five birdies in seven holes on his front nine to vault into a four-way tie for second with a group that includes three-time major winner Ernie Els. No question, Mickelson was the toast of Monterey after the way he roasted Pebble.
“It was spectacular all day,” playing partner Padraig Harrington said of Lefty’s round. “I got to see it first-hand. He didn’t miss a shot. It’s the best I have ever seen him play.
“It was as easy a 66 as you will ever see.”
The terms easy, 66 and U.S. Open have rarely been used in the same sentence, but that’s how well Mickelson played on Friday, when he positioned himself for yet another shot at the biggest title that has thus far eluded him. Mickelson, with a record five runner-up finishes in the Open already under his belt, said he hasn’t even begun to think about what the title would mean. That might be a wise choice, given the water under his professional bridge in this event.
“I'm in a good spot,” he said. “I don't look at the leaderboard, I don't look at other players. I look at par. This is the only tournament really in professional golf that brings out Bobby Jones’ old saying of ‘playing against Old Man Par,’ because if you just can stay around par you're going to be in the tournament on Sunday, and that's kind of the goal.”
Not-So-Old Man Mickelson turned 40 on Wednesday, and he isn’t exactly showing signs of wear and tear. If his misfires at the Open in the past are wearing on him, and some of them have been spectacular, it’s hard to tell.
If Mickelson can nail down the title, he might look at the crucial stretch beginning at No. 2 on Friday as the key portion of the week. The second, a converted par-5, has been daunting all week, and Mickelson birdied it when most players would sell their souls for a simple par.
“I think that was a pretty good kick in the pants,” caddie Jim Mackay said.
Now he can start planting his foot on the backside of others. With three career wins at Pebble Beach and four major championships to his credit, Mickelson will be the big favorite on the weekend. All of a sudden, those five second-place finishes at the Open seem like a good thing, because he’s seen all the event can offer at this point.
“I think it’s big,” he said of his experience.”I think it’s really big. It’s important to know how to play these holes under these conditions and how to make pars.”
His ascendance up the board was big for the tournament, too. No knock on McDowell, Dustin Johnson or the other less-heralded players in the mix, but a duel between Els and Mickelson, with seven majors between them, sounds pretty good right now. Els has two U.S. Open crowns already.
Mickelson wasn’t about to delve into hypotheticals or forecasting. In fact, he is squarely in the moment and reveling in it. A player many believed didn’t have the self-discipline to play the most demanding setups in the sport at the Open is again right where he wants to be.
Even if his late tee slot runs through dinner time.
“This is so much fun,” he said. “I don’t want the weekend to end.”