AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Phil Mickelson has won 35 times around the world, starting with a PGA Tour event when he was still in college. His collection includes three major championships, and he is solidly entrenched at No. 2 in the world rankings.
That must make him the best player to have never won a World Golf Championship.
Mickelson got a chuckle out of the playful suggestion after making a mid-round adjustment Saturday at the Bridgestone Invitational that led to three straight birdies and a 2-under 68, giving him a share of the lead with Vijay Singh and Lee Westwood.
It’s not quite the same burden as “best to have never won a major,” the label he shed in 2004 at the Masters. And the WGC events are not nearly as prestigious as the majors.
Even so, he has never had this good an opportunity to win one.
“They started midway through my career, so I haven’t given them the priority like I do a major, or care about like a major,” said Mickelson, who has skipped four of the WGCs held overseas. “But they are always the best fields in the game, they’re always on great golf courses, they’re always on tough tests. So I think there’s a lot of merit to whoever wins those.”
Tiger Woods has won 15 of them, including six at Firestone. The leaders through 54 holes have a combined 116 victories around the world, and all of them will be going for their first world title.
Singh missed two putts inside 3 1/2 feet, but he holed two straight birdies from 12 feet to keep pace with Mickelson and wound up with a 69. The big Fijian will be in the final group with Westwood, who was far more conventional. The 35-year-old from England said he drove as well as he can remember, missing only two fairways, and wound up with a 67.
They all were at 8-under 202 – three players from three parts of the world, giving this a truly global appeal.
Not to be forgotten was Stuart Appleby of Australia, the only player to compete in all 29 of these events since they began in 1999.
“I’m certainly overdue,” Appleby said after a birdie on the final hole for a 67. “I’ve been a long time doing this, so it would be nice.”
Westwood has not won in the United States – other than the Ryder Cup, of course – since New Orleans in 1998, but he holds the distinction of having won on every tour recognized by the International Federation of PGA Tours – South Africa, Asian, Australia, Europe, Japan and the United States.
“You want to win everywhere, don’t you?” Westwood asked. “I’m proud that I’ve won on every tour, basically. I haven’t won a World Golf Championship, so it would mean a lot, and obviously give me a massive amount of confidence going into the next week.”
Mickelson won at Firestone a dozen years ago before it was a WGC event, and this might be his best chance at a world title. After straightening out his tee shots, he closed out his string of birdies by going for the green on the 620-yard 16th hole, hitting a hybrid into the back bunker and getting up and down.
But he lost the outright lead on the final hole with a wedge in his hand, blocking the shot enough that it clipped a tree and came up well short of the green. Mickelson failed to save par from 8 feet.
“I think it will be a fun shootout,” Mickelson said.
He played Saturday in the final group with Singh, and it took a while for them to put on a show.
Singh birdied consecutive holes early, chipping to 3 feet on the par-5 second and holing a scary chip from above the hole on the third. But he hung his head when an approach spun off the false front of the fourth green, and he badly missed from just over 3 feet, setting the tone for a spotty afternoon with his belly putter.
“A few short putts here and there would have made a big difference,” Singh said.
Mickelson, who had only broken par three times in the last four years at Firestone, posted his third straight round in the 60s this week thanks to an adjustment in his alignment. He was off slightly early on, hitting his opening tee shot into the trees and missing his mark by some 50 feet with a mid-iron on the second.
But it didn’t get his attention until two big misses off the tee on the 11th and 13th, one leading to bogey. Mickelson made sure he was more square to the target, blasted a tee shot on the 14th and began his run of birdies.
Westwood, a 35-year-old from England, hasn’t won since the British Masters last summer but is far more comfortable with his consistency over the last eight months. He had a chance to win his first major at the U.S. Open, missing a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Torrey Pines to miss the playoff by one shot.
“Winning is strange,” Westwood said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go your way. Sometimes, somebody else plays a little bit better.”
That could be just about anybody on Sunday, although Mickelson is convinced the winner will come from the final two groups, unless someone such as Retief Goosen (68) at 5-under 205 gets hot.
“All four of us are playing well,” Mickelson said of the leaders and Appleby. “I expect at least one and probably two or three us to have good rounds in the 60s tomorrow and force the guys behind us to catch up with birdies.”