ATLANTA (AP) — Phil Mickelson has won 34 times on the PGA Tour, including three majors. He is No. 2 in the world ranking, and without Tiger Woods around, perhaps the most popular player among fans and a television audience.
After making five birdies over his final seven holes Friday, Mickelson was in third place, just three shots out of the lead.
At this Tour Championship, that makes him the warm-up act.
The Main Event — which for many seems like a replay of a testy match six days ago at Valhalla — is Anthony Kim and Sergio Garcia, paired in the final group Saturday at East Lake just six days after they squared off in the Ryder Cup.
Mickelson, who shot a 68, was among those who couldn’t stop talking about it.
“I like the way it worked out last Sunday,” Mickelson said, referring to Kim’s 5-and-4 victory in the opening singles match, setting the tone for a rare American victory in the Ryder Cup.
Kim made bogey from the bunker on the par-3 18th and had to settle for a 1-under 69, getting little out of another solid display of driving and irons. He was at 7-under 133 and led by two over Garcia, who ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch early Friday for a 65.
Until last week at Valhalla, the Americans had not won the Ryder Cup since 1999. That was the year Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to complete the biggest comeback ever, an event marred by the Americans’ running onto the green before Jose Maria Olazabal could attempt his 25-foot birdie putt to halve the hole.
A month later, Leonard and Olazabal happened to be paired together in Spain.
These things happen.
What makes the Kim-Garcia pairing more juicy is that the Ryder Cup ended just six days ago.
Plus, the Tour Championship was turning into the most insignificant $7 million event on the planet — the beverage of choice might has well have been coffee — with the FedEx Cup already decided and most players still going through a Ryder Cup hangover.
Now they get a Ryder Cup redo, even if the two heavyweights aren’t buying into it.
They’re right, of course. This isn’t a team event of match play, rather a 30-man field playing 72 holes of stroke play. At stake is not a 17-inch gold trophy, rather a $1.26 million check and a crystal trophy.
The tournament is not on the last day, only halfway through.
Even so, memories are fresh.
“We had one day of golf — really, 14 holes of golf,” Kim said, trying to downplay the pairing and instead drawing laughter for his veiled reference of a 5-and-4 victory at Valhalla.
Asked about his thoughts from last week, Garcia quickly replied, “That’s the past. This is a different event.”
“It’s Saturday of the Tour Championship,” Garcia said. “It’s a totally different event. Tomorrow is an important day to give yourself a chance on Sunday. You’re not going to win the tournament tomorrow unless you shoot 52.”
Not to be forgotten was Kim’s tag-team partner from the Ryder Cup — Phil Mickelson, who ran off five birdies over the last seven holes for a 68 that put him three shots behind.
And there’s more at stake than just a big check and an elite title for the winner. Mickelson, Garcia and Kim are the top contenders to win the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average on the PGA Tour.
“We still have a lot of golf left this weekend that will probably decide it,” Mickelson said.
They were among six players in the 30-man field who managed to break par over two days, joined by Camilo Villegas (66) at 2-under 138, and K.J. Choi (70) and Mike Weir (69) at 139.
Even without their recent Ryder Cup history, Kim and Garcia are two of golf’s young stars. Both can energize the crowd with their personalities, and they are loaded with talent.
Kim, whose opening 64 was eight shots better than the field average, looked as though he might go even lower when he stuffed his approach inside 3 feet on the first hole and hit two more approaches inside 6 feet through five holes.
But he made enough mistakes — a pair of three-putt bogeys on the front nine — to keep enough players in range.
“I feel pretty positive about shooting under par on this golf course and not feeling like I got a lot out of my game,” he said.
Garcia didn’t play all that badly Sunday in his loss to Kim except for a few bad drives on the front nine. He made only bogey at East Lake, chipping too firmly on the 18th hole and missing his par putt from about 10 feet.
The 28-year-old Spaniard fired off three straight birdies starting with a 9-iron into about 10 feet on the fifth, concluding his run with a 25-foot birdie on the seventh with perfect pace that brought a wry smile. Garcia also hit a delicate bunker shot for a short birdie on the par-5 ninth, and hammered a wedge to 2 feet of a tough pin on the 17th.
“If you miss the fairway, you’re pretty much done,” Garcia said. “Even from the fairway, it’s still tough because the greens are so firm and so fast. But if you played well, you had a chance of getting on a roll, like I did.”
Lurking was Mickelson, until his string of birdies at the end of the round.
Lefty won at East Lake in 2000, and he is starting to knock in enough putts to gain some confidence going into the weekend. Even so, he was intrigued by the two players ahead of him.
“I’ve got to go out and try to track both of those guys down,” Mickelson said. “That’s not going to be easy.”