SHANGHAI, China (AP) — Phil Mickelson is getting the hang of this travel thing very quickly.
A 35-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole and a tap-in birdie on No. 18 gave Mickelson a 4-under 68 and a two-stroke lead over Ross Fisher going into Sunday’s final round of the HSBC Champions tournament.
Known for his reluctance to play outside the U.S., Mickelson is set to cash in on Asia’s richest tournament, a $5 million purse with $833,300 for the winner.
“I want to play well whether it’s the States, whether it’s here,” Mickelson said Saturday. “I want to want to compete and I want to have a chance to win. To me that’s what’s fun. It’s difficult to come this far and not play well.”
On his first trip to China – and his first to Asia – Mickelson has drawn the biggest galleries, been unfailingly polite and filled the Tiger Woods void. Woods played the HSBC event last year, failed to win and is not back this time.
Mickelson is looking to return home with only his second international victory. The first came 14 years ago in France.
Fisher also shot 68 on Saturday for a 12-under 204. Paul Casey carded a 66 to trail Mickelson by three. American Kevin Stadler, who had a one-stroke lead after two rounds, slipped to a 73 and fell four behind Mickelson.
Five players were in a group seven shots back including Vijay Singh (72), defending British Open champion Padraig Harrington (69) and defending tournament champion Yang Yong-eun (70) of South Korea.
From being a homebody, Mickelson is now preaching the virtues of world golf. The two-week trip to Asia has allowed him to test new equipment for next season, and it’s given him a profile in the world’s most populous country.
“I think it would be great for the game of golf if we can get people here in China to take an interest,” Mickelson said. “This is a great opportunity for the game to gain some interest in a part of the world that can have a huge impact on the game.”
Only two Chinese players made the cut. China’s top player Liang Wenchong shot 74 and was 13 behind Mickelson. Zhang Lianwei carded an 82 Saturday, leaving him 24 behind the leader.
Mickelson has been able to play relaxed golf in Shanghai, mixing it in with evenings out with his wife and children. Of course it helps that this event has no relevance on the U.S. tour. It is, however, the first event of the 2008 European tour season, which comes almost two months before the new year.
“Being able to see so many great things here in Shanghai, it’s been a great way for me to relax off the golf course,” said Mickelson, who finished 16 strokes behind winner Angel Cabrera in last week’s Singapore Open.
Mickelson made several testing 5-foot putts to save par at the Sheshan Golf Club, an American-style layout graced by an Italian-accent clubhouse complete with a belltower and a swanky estate of country houses.
However, the key was a 35-footer for birdie on No. 15 put him in the lead for good, a difficult split-level green with a rolling slope.
The two-time Masters winner threw his left fist skyward when the putt dropped, doffed his visor and then gave the ball to a young woman in the gallery amid chants of “Phil, Phil.”
“I certainly didn’t expect to make it,” Mickelson said. “It was such a long putt, you can’t plan on making those and I was fortunate to see that one go in.”
He also missed a 30-foot eagle putt on the final hole and settled for an easy birdie to push him two ahead.
Fisher, who picked up his first victory on the European tour in the Dutch Open earlier this year, looked comfortable playing in the final pairing with Mickelson and Stadler. He was in the final pairing with Woods earlier in the season in the Dubai Desert Classic.
“Tiger was fantastic,” Fisher said. “I was shocked at how open he was. We were chatting like we were best friends. And the same today with Phil. He was very polite, we were chatting most of the way around. It kind of really helped me to relax.”