PEBBLE BEACH — “I’m usually OK with a wedge in my hands,” Phil Mickelson said with a shrug and one of the biggest smirky grins he’s ever exhibited.
No one wants to sell himself short, but for once, it seemed appropriate to say so.
Lefty had a reason to smile on Saturday at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and it was the same reason that, unquestionably, has been the signature strength of his career. Mickelson might love to hit bombs, but it’s his short game that has been his biggest weapon in winning 44 times on the PGA Tour.
He goes for win No. 45 on Sunday because he literally wedged himself into second place, one behind leader Nick Taylor of Canada and two strokes ahead of Australia’s Jason Day. Winner of this event a record-tying five times, including last year, Mickelson holed out twice from off the green on consecutive holes on the back nine on the way to a five-under 67.
At the par-4 13th hole, Mickelson splashed out of a deep bunker, putting a bit of left side spin on the ball, and watched it disappear for a birdie. Then he rammed home a chip from just short of the green at the par-5 14th after spinning his approach off the elevated putting surface. That shot was chugging along but found the flagstick and rattled in.
“Yeah, that was sexy,” Mickelson said of the bunker shot at 13. The one on the next he called merely “attractive.” It was more magical stuff at a magical place where Phil’s grandfather caddied when the course opened in 1919.
“It seemed like my short game was pretty good today,” Mickelson said, drawing some laughs. “I scored well today on a day that wasn’t easy, the greens were firm, I thought the wind made it difficult, and I ended up playing really well and making a good score.”
Mickelson, who made the most of a round in which he hit only nine greens in regulation, nearly chipped in a third time, leaving a bump-and-run shot on the lip for birdie from left of the green at the par-3 fifth hole.
Crazy as it sounds, none of those were even remotely his best shot of the day. First place went to a bunker blast that didn’t go in that he ranks the second best of his career. From a fried-egg lie behind the green at the par-3 seventh hole, Mickelson gouged one out that landed in the rough, took a hop, and then trickled to within two feet of the hole.
The only bunker shot he ever hit better was from underneath a lip behind the 16th green at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, during the final round of the 2006 Memorial Tournament. (Look it up; it also was insane.)
“I was just trying to give myself a chance for par and not make double [bogey], and I nearly knocked it in,” Mickelson said. “It came out great.”
He walked off at the iconic 18th hole with one more birdie thanks to one more swell wedge shot. After missing the green well to the right, he flopped a high pitch from 47 yards that settled 5 feet from the pin.
The 49-year-old Hall of Famer is seeking his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour since he won by three strokes a year ago in a tournament that finished on Monday because of inclement weather. That already made him the oldest winner in tournament history. A win on Sunday would break a tie with fellow California native Mark O’Meara for most wins in this event and also would break a tie with another state product, Tiger Woods, for most victories in California.
“We’ve got a lot of golf tomorrow,” he said cautiously. “I have to do the same thing that I’ve done previously and just go shoot a good solid final round and get off to a good start.”
And get the ball in the hole. In whatever fashion necessary.