SAN DIEGO — Phil Mickelson has found his mid-season form in January.
The popular San Diegan made five birdies and only one bogey while carding a 4-under 68 in the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open on Saturday. He is tied at the top with Bill Haas (71) at 12 under par, a shot ahead of Hunter Mahan (69) and Bubba Watson (69), and his form qualifies as the surprise of the week and the surprise of 2011.
Mickelson wasn't the guy whose life imploded in 2010, the guy who failed to win a single tournament all year, but it was tempting to write his career obit just the same.
Other than the week of the Masters, he looked mostly lost. The 40-year-old revealed in June that he had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, a chronic condition that prematurely sent Tour pro Bob Murphy to the broadcast booth a quarter century ago.
"Boy, that's a bad deal," Murphy told the New York Times last year. "Because sometimes you have a pain in your back, and it'll be there for four, five days. And then you wake up another morning and you've got a pain in your shoulder, or your hands."
Until this week, things looked decidedly grim. Not only hadn't Mickelson won, he hadn't really contended, and it seemed as if his failing health was to blame. Or not.
Other than jarring his elbow with a shot out of the thick rough on 12, Mickelson was in no pain Saturday, when his stress-free 68 tied for the best round of the day. He hit seven of 14 fairways — his most accurate round so far — but thrived from trouble, too.
He hit an 8-iron out of the fairway bunker on the first hole and watched his ball drop four feet from the pin. Birdie. From the rough just barely above the lip of a fairway bunker on the fourth hole, he played his 223-yard approach shot off the mounding right of the green to within six feet. Birdie.
The intentional bank shot had even Mickelson's longtime caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, popping his eyes wide open as if to say, "Wow."
Mickelson took just 27 strokes on the greens overall. He hit 13 of the 18 greens in regulation, and is tied for second in GIR for the week, behind only Watson. This is how he's gotten away with ranking near the bottom of the field in fairways hit (15 of 42).
"I'm not taking on the risk; I'm just playing it much more conservative," said Mickelson of Torrey South, where he's won three times as a pro, but has been shut out since Rees Jones redesigned it in 2001. "Because the reward isn't there. This course doesn't reward you for taking on any challenge. And my more conservative approach into the greens, albeit boring, has led me to be on top of the leaderboard."
Mickelson's psoriatic arthritis diagnosis came a year after his wife, Amy, and his mother, Mary, were diagnosed with breast cancer. After going public with his latest setback, Mickelson flirted with winning his first U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but his season fizzled out from there, and the whispers grew louder that maybe this was the end. Maybe this was what happens to greatness. Life comes along with all its surprises and upsets, and greatness is put on hold, forgotten about, until eventually it's unrecognizable.
Except in the case of Mickelson, that's not what's happening at all. If part of his solid play this week owes to his grudging acquiescence to conservative play, another part owes to the fact that he simply wants it. He has talked this week of atoning for his 2010.
"I started practicing about seven to 10 days earlier in the off-season than I normally do because I've just been anxious," he said. "I want to get out and play."
Mickelson tied for 37th place at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, his first tournament in the Middle East and his first start this season last week. It seemed like more of the same, but with his coach, Butch Harmon, also making the trip to the UAE, Phil began to knock the rust off, and the work has paid big dividends.
Playing in the most glamorous threesome Saturday, with Watson and Rickie Fowler (73, 7 under), Mickelson made delicate left-to-right and right-to-left putts. He got up and down out of the sand twice in three chances. Even his long game was fairly stout, notwithstanding the spectator he drilled with a pulled drive on the par-5 18th hole.
"He really wants to play," Phil Mickelson Sr. said as his son sized up his second shot from the 12th fairway. "He's been working pretty hard at it."
Amy, who had her most recent cancer treatment earlier this month, is well enough to walk all three rounds so far. Mary, too, faces a good long-term prognosis, although according to Phil Sr. her knees have been giving her too much trouble to play basketball. And Phil Jr., who played his first Farmers 23 years ago, has seldom looked better.
Maybe he's not done after all.
Six players are within three shots of the lead, also including Anthony Kim (71, 10 under), and Bob Hope winner Jhonattan Vegas (69, 9 under). At 32, Watson is the next oldest after Mickelson. The rest are in their 20s.
Tiger Woods? In the first week of what has widely been billed as his comeback season, he shot a dispiriting 74 Saturday and fell eight shots off the lead, almost certainly too far back to win. It's Mickelson who seems to be resuscitating his career here.
"It's going to be an exciting Sunday," he said, "and I'm happy I'm part of it."