AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A boy in a green shirt held his right arm up as Phil Mickelson sized up a long eagle putt on the par-5 13th hole in the third round of the Masters on Saturday. Mickelson knew it was a slow putt that would curl off to the right at the top of the hill. He’d faced a similar putt to the same pin placement in the third round of the 2010 Masters, and he’d made it.
“Boy, this’ll get a roar goin’ if he makes this,” a man said.
Mickelson struck the putt and watched it roll, and roll. “He missed it,” someone said. The boy’s hand remained up. Mickelson began to move toward the ball as it edged ever closer, and raised his right arm and punched the air with his left as it tumbled over the edge on its last rotation, setting off a thunderous roar that reverberated through Amen Corner and across the entire course. Mickelson was tied for the lead, but with no bold-faced names anywhere near him, he was first among equals. The end game for the 76th Masters had begun.
“I’ve hit that putt so many times,” said Mickelson, who fired a back-nine 30 for a bogey-free 66 to get to eight under, just one behind Swede Peter Hanson (65) heading into Sunday. “I know that it breaks a lot at the hole. I know it’s slow up that hill and gave it a little extra and still barely got it to the lip and it just fell in. That was such a good feeling.”
A victory would give Mickelson his fourth green jacket, elevating him into a tie on the career Masters victories table with Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.
Hanson, who has never held a lead after any round on the PGA Tour in 38 previous starts, is trying to become Sweden’s first major championship winner.
Louis Oosthuizen shot a 69 and was seven under, two behind Hanson, while Bubba Watson (70) and Matt Kuchar (70) were three and four back, respectively.
"Definitely, that was one of those special kind of Masters moments that I've been watching so many times, TV-wise," Hanson said of the bomb by Mickelson, who was playing in the twosome behind him. "You hear the crowd going wild when he made the eagle; it kind of helped me on 14. I'm standing in the middle of the fairway, and I feel him breathing down my neck a little bit, and manage to get mine close on 14, and picked up another birdie on 15."
"Well, I'm sorry I was helping him out," Mickelson quipped. "It didn't look like he needed it."
Although talk of a new "Big Three" dominated the preamble to this Masters, Mickelson is the only one who's performed as advertised.
Rory McIlroy began the day a shot behind Fred Couples (75) and Jason Dufner (75), but he shot 42 on the front nine, signed for a 77 and tumbled to a tie for 27th place. Tiger Woods struggled again and settled for an even-par 72. He has yet to break par this week, and his three-over total has him a dozen shots behind and tied for 38th .
Mickelson's foil is turning out to be a 34-year-old father of two who has won four times on the European tour , but never in America.
"This is kind of a new situation to me, being in the spotlight like this and playing in the last group," said Hanson, who lost the first four holes when Mickelson beat him, 4 and 2, at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. "So it's going to be about controlling my emotions and trying to be in the present, and trying to play the same kind of golf that I've been doing."
Hanson lives at Orlando's Lake Nona and is enjoying his best season after hooking up with teaching pro Gary Gilchrist at the start of the year. He made the quarterfinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play before losing to Mark Wilson and finished T4 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.
"That's kind of what's given him a lot of confidence," said his caddie, Mark Sherwood, who watched as Hanson made eight birdies, including four in his final five holes, and one bogey. "And he's more consistent since he made a couple changes in his swing with Gary Gilchrist. He hit a lot of good shots out there."
It was Mickelson's play, though, that brought the loudest roars. After starting his round with nine straight pars, he began to heat up with a birdie on the par-4 10th hole. He birdied the little par-3 12th as well before hitting his second shot, a cut 6-iron from 206 yards, into the green at the par-5 13th.
His riskiest shot of the day undoubtedly came two holes later, when he took a huge swing with his 64-degree wedge from behind the 15th green. He watched his ball shoot straight up into the air, land softly, and roll to within five feet of the pin for birdie. His fans exhaled and watched him roll in the putt.
"He's in such a good place mentally right now," said swing coach Rick Smith, who remains friends with Mickelson despite no longer working with him, and who followed his round Saturday. "We had dinner the other night and he said, 'I'm putting it so good.' He said it after the AT&T. He said it at Bay Hill."
What's even more impressive, Smith said, is Mickelson's resolve at Augusta, a course that suits his game like no other. He refused to buckle upon taking a lost ball and carding a triple-bogey 7 on the 10th hole Thursday, a mishap that left him four over par and in danger of shooting himself out of the tournament. He birdied 18 to salvage a two-over 74 in the first round, a moral victory at the end of a long day.
"I think when I look back on this tournament, I go back to Thursday and where I was standing after 10 holes," Mickelson said. "I was in a position, with some very difficult holes coming up, to let the round really slide and the tournament slide, but I fought hard to get a couple back, knowing I wasn't going to get them all back in the first round, that there was plenty of golf left."
Mickelson gradually played his way back into the tournament, shooting 68 Friday before his bogey-free 66 in sunny, windless conditions Saturday.
"His mindset after he made that birdie on 18 Thursday was, I'm going to go make at least 10 more," said Smith, who remains involved with Mickelson in two golf development projects in China. "His mindset is so strong, and he can get it back so quickly here. He was the only one not complaining after a bad first round, and he wrote his own script by being so positive."
Mickelson began the final round tied with Chris DiMarco when he won in 2004. He led by one going into the final round when he won in '06, and he was a shot behind Lee Westwood when he captured his third green jacket in 2010.
"I love it here," Mickelson said, "and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters. It's the greatest thing in professional golf."