LOS ANGELES (AP) — Phil Mickelson was in contention for the first time all year and wanted to make sure he stayed there.
Moments after signing his scorecard following the second round – nine shots worse than his opening round – he called Butch Harmon in Las Vegas and asked if he could meet him on the range Saturday morning at Riviera.
The work paid off in a big way at the Northern Trust Open.
Mickelson made four straight birdies in the final hour of the third round to pull away from a strong leaderboard with a 9-under 62, topping his personal best at Riviera he had set two days earlier and building a four-shot lead going into the final round.
“He’s pretty good at what he does,” Mickelson said. “Having him be able to be right there and identify it was nice.”
Lefty had a chance to tie the course record until his 10-foot birdie on the 18th hole was struck too hard and missed above the hole, but that was no reason to complain. He was at 16-under 197, four shots clear of Andres Romero.
A parabola could be used to diagram his first three days – 63-72-62. All that matters to Mickelson is that after a sluggish start to his West Coast Swing, he believes he’s headed down the right path.
“I feel like – I don’t want to say back on track – but I have a direction of where I want to go, and my iron play was much, much better because of it,” he said.
Five players had at least a share of the lead at one point in the third round, but what had been shaping up as a shootout at Riviera soon turned into a showcase for Mickelson.
It began with a tee shot into 4 feet on the par-3 14th for the outright lead. Mickelson followed that with an 8-foot birdie on the 15th, a 35-foot birdie on the 16th, and an up-and-down from the bunker on the par-5 17th for his fourth straight birdie.
“To see a few putts go in, it’s obviously a great feeling because it rewards the iron play,” Mickelson said.
Just his luck, Harmon had returned Friday from a vacation in the Bahamas.
“We mostly worked on his lower body, keep it quiet,” Harmon said. The idea was to keep Mickelson’s legs more still to allow him more freedom to swing. It must have worked, for Mickelson only missed four fairways and two greens and put together his lowest score since he opened with a 62 at Spyglass Hill four years ago in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Romero did his part to keep close with birdies on his last three holes that he called “close to perfect,” giving him a 65. He will need a big round, but the Argentine has shown he is capable. He made 10 birdies in 16 holes two years ago in the final round at Carnoustie, the toughest links in the British Open rotation.
“I have a lot of confidence in the putter, just like when I made those 10 birdies at Carnoustie,” he said. “I am four shots behind Mickelson, the defending champion. It’s a tough job, but I will try to do my best. It’s not against him, it’s against the course. And if I play good against the course, maybe I have a chance.”
They will be joined in the last group by Fred Couples, who was poised to give himself a good chance to win with a 65, only to see a familiar face spoil the occasion.
The last time Couples was in the last group was the 2006 Masters – with Mickelson, who went on to win.
Couples, at 49 and in his last full year on the PGA Tour, shot 30 on the front nine and briefly held the lead on his favorite golf course east of Augusta. He shot a 65 and walked off the 18th green only one shot out of the lead.
By the time he reached the media center, Mickelson had run off three straight birdies. When Couples finished his interview, Lefty already had made his fourth in a row and posted his 62.
“This is my big day tomorrow to have a shot at winning,” Couples said. “I don’t want these guys being 19 under. When I was coming down in the cart, I was telling the guy I thought maybe another 6 under might do it. Might need a 9 under.”
The way Mickelson is going, even that might not be enough. This is his largest 54-hole lead since he was ahead by eight shots at the BellSouth Classic in 2006, winning by 13.
Rory Sabbatini (67), K.J. Choi (67) and Scott McCarron (70) joined Couples in the group at 11-under 202. Another shot behind was Mark Calcavecchia (64), Steve Stricker (69) and Pebble Beach winner Dustin Johnson (67).
Mickelson’s late surge of birdies might have killed any hopes of a nostalgic weekend at Riviera.
Calcavecchia, on the 20-year anniversary of his victory at the course, opened his third round with an eagle at No. 10, made birdie on all the par 5s and shot a 64 to finish at 10-under 203.
As if Calcavecchia needed a reminder of how long he has been playing, his 19-year-old daughter Brittany – still in the womb when he first won at Riviera – is now a freshman at Long Beach State and followed him during the second round.
“Had not really thought of that, actually,” said Calcavecchia, at a rare loss for words. “When I was 29, you would think of someone who is 48 as being borderline ancient. Now I can’t get to 50 fast enough.”
Sabbatini, who won at Riviera three years ago, bogeyed the last hole to fall out of the final group. He was five shots behind, and after playing with Mickelson, realizes what kind of odds he is facing.
“The way Phil played today was amazing,” he said. “You can’t expect him to fall. The scary thing is he could have gone even lower out there. We just have to keep trying to put some pressure on him.”