AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson are two of the longest hitters in golf. They were Nos. 1 and 2 on the leaderboard going into the weekend at Firestone, which measures 7,400 yards and is playing every bit that long this week.
To what do they attribute their fine play at the Bridgestone Invitational?
Their short games, of course.
Singh had trouble finding a fairway Friday in the second round, but he dodged enough trees and holed enough putts for a 4-under 66 that gave him a one-shot lead over Mickelson, the first time since Bay Hill in March that Singh’s name has been atop the leaderboard.
He was at 7-under 133 as he goes for his first victory on U.S. soil in 18 months.
“I putted really poorly,” Singh said in assessing his season. “If you’re not putting well, it kind of edges into the rest of the game.”
Mickelson made a great escape on his final hole for the second straight day, this time for par after making a 20-footer for a 66 that landed him in the final group Saturday with Singh.
He has won twice this year, but his short game has been costing him shots just about every week. Lefty renewed his dedication to putting and chipping, and is thankful to see some results with the PGA Championship looming.
“I hit some great wedge shots today, just the basic little chip shots that I expect to get close,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t been performing the way I expected, and this week it feels much better. I spent last week on short game exclusively, and I feel like it’s starting to come around.”
Both have three majors – two Masters and a PGA for Mickelson, two PGAs and a Masters for Singh – along with some history. They got into a heated argument during a rain delay at Augusta National over the length of Mickelson’s metal spikes. A year later when they played two rounds together in Phoenix, Singh asked that Mickelson’s driver be tested to make sure it was legal.
Both have more pressing concerns this week, mainly getting their games back in order for the PGA Championship.
“I’m going to go out there and play my heart out and try to shoot as low as I can, and not really be concerned about what Phil does,” said Singh, who was at 7-under 133. “He’s going to be focused on his game. I just hope we both have a good day.”
Sean O’Hair, seeing immediate results from switching to a new swing coach, had a 67 and joined the group at 5-under 135 that included Lee Westwood (65), former Masters champion Zach Johnson (68) and Peter Lonard (66).
Sixteen players were within four shots of the lead.
“It’s anybody’s ball game,” said Hunter Mahan, who had a 66 and was at 3-under 137.
It helps that Tiger Woods isn’t at Firestone, particularly since he is a six-time champion on this course and had never finished out of the top five in his 10 appearances.
“To me, him not being here is the difference between 39th and 38th,” Lonard said with a laugh.
Singh was the last player other than Woods to be No. 1 in the world, a 32-week reign in 2004-05. But now he is 45, coping with nagging injuries and a victory drought on the PGA Tour that has lasted 18 months and caused him to fall to No. 15 in the world ranking.
The culprit? He blames his putter.
Singh got so fed up with his conventional putter when he missed the cut at the British Open that he went back to the belly putter during a week of practice and swears he will stick with it.
“I’m not a great putter, but I’m not a bad putter,” Singh said. “The British Open was the turning point, where I played really well and putted really badly, and decided that’s it. I’m not a good putter with a short putter. I’ve decided that I’m going to putt with the belly. If you see me with a short one, that means that something is wrong with me.”
The only thing wrong on a balmy Friday at Firestone was his driver, although it didn’t hurt him too badly. One day after missing only one fairway, Singh was in the short grass six times in the second round, and needed to work his shots around the tree-lined fairways on the sixth and eighth holes at the end of his round to avoid dropping shots.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “When I hit the ball, it just didn’t go straight today.”
Mickelson hit his share of errant shots, mostly on his approach to the greens. He found a bunker on No. 8 that he couldn’t get close enough to save par, and was headed in the same direction on his final hole at No. 9, hitting into the left bunker and blasting out weakly to 20 feet. But he made it to save par, going into the weekend with some momentum.
“I didn’t want to bogey the last two,” Mickelson said. “And I also had been hitting a lot of good putts, and I made a bunch today. I made some good ones. To see balls rolling in now, I’m starting to gain a little bit more confidence, a little bit more momentum.”