Despite being five shots back, Mickelson can still win his first Open on Sunday

Despite being five shots back, Mickelson can still win his first Open on Sunday

Despite his second-round 72, Mickelson still has a chance to win on Sunday.
Thomas Lovelock / Sports Illustrated

GULLANE, Scotland – Phil Mickelson and his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, shouted mixed messages at Mickelson's ball as it hung in the air on Muirfield's 441-yard 15th hole.

"Carry in the air," Mackay said. "Go!"

"It's all right," Mickelson said.

Alas, Mackay was right to worry — the ball landed short and kicked not forward but dead right and into a pot bunker some 30 yards in front of the green.

"Oh, no!" Mickelson said. "What, are you kidding me? What in the world!?"

If you followed Game No. 33 on Saturday, you could hear how much Mickelson wants to win the 142nd British Open. And despite playing his last six holes in three over par, he's not out of it. That long, nasty bunker shot on 15 led to a bogey, which he followed with another bogey on the 195-yard 16th hole, and he signed for a one-over-par 72 and a two over total through 54 holes. He is five back of Lee Westwood. But with only eight players ahead of him and in light of the final-round mayhem we've seen at recent Opens, that deficit is nothing.

Mickelson hit the ball better than he did during his second-round 74 — he met with coach Butch Harmon before the third — but didn't score. Regardless, he is one good round away from winning the Open, and the definition of a good round here is something like Hunter Mahan's three-under 68 on Saturday. Such a round would leave Mickelson at one under for the championship. Would that be enough? The way the course is playing, balls bouncing hither and thither and rolling into the big holes (bunkers) while avoiding the little ones (cups), it probably would be. Does Mickelson have it in him? He probably does.

Nick Faldo, who won the 1987 Open at Muirfield by making 18 pars in the final round, spoke earlier this week about how every Open is decided in part by a good bounce or a fortuitous gust of wind. While he would never say as much, Mickelson didn't get the good bounce or the fortunate gust. He piped his tee shot on the par-5 17th hole, using the three wood that's more like a two wood, only to watch the ball kick left and into some light rough. Again, he asked, "Are you kidding me?"

The lie was good enough to get a utility wood on the ball, and he gave it a nice strike up the fairway, from where he hit a smart, low approach to 20 feet below the hole. He missed the birdie putt, failing to atone for bogeys on 15 and 16, but took his par and moved on. The impetuous play would have been to gun for the back-left pin on 17, perhaps finding the rough left or long of the green, perhaps leading to a demoralizing bogey on a par-5. But Phil the Chill didn't take the bait.

"You just need an element of luck," he said. "You're going to have to make 20-, 30-footers. I didn't make really any today, and subsequently had only three birdies. I think the pars are very manageable. I don't think there's any hole that — if you hit good shots, you should be able to par every hole out here."

Nine twosomes were still on the course when Mickelson finished, and before his agent hurried him off the podium after six questions, he guessed that the lead at the end of the round would be one under. Not quite. Westwood, the 40-year-old Englishman in search of his first major title, salvaged a bogey on the par-3 16th hole, birdied 17 and made a routine par on 18 to shoot 70, putting the lead at three under heading into Sunday.

The only other players under par are Mahan and Tiger Woods (72), at one under. Masters champion Adam Scott (70) is at even par, and four players are one over: Angel Cabrera (73), Zach Johnson (73), Ryan Moore (72) and Henrik Stenson (74).

Mickelson has never won a British Open in 19 tries, and you've got to believe even his fans have at times written off his chances on a links course. But if Mickelson ever had any doubts, he was infused with new self-belief when he won the Scottish Open last week. He can win in Great Britain, and if he can win in Great Britain, he can win a British Open. You know he knows it. You could see it in the way Mackay warned the guys with the fuzzy, directional microphones to back off his man on 15, and in the way Mickelson limited his thumbs-ups and nods to the gallery and asked the marshals on 17 to watch that their yellow signs didn't throw a shadow on the tee. Seven players stand between Mickelson and Westwood. Take away the leader, and Mickelson is only three shots back with 18 holes remaining, just as he thought he'd be when he finished his third round.

That's doable, as fast as things can change at Muirfield. Witness the strange cautionary tale of Scot Martin Laird, who mis-hit for the cycle (quintuple bogey, triple bogey, double bogey, bogey) while carding a third-round 81 to go from a shot out of the lead to an early tee time on Sunday. The guess here is Laird didn't get the good bounces Faldo, Mickelson and others have spoken of. Lefty will be paired with Francesco Molinari on Sunday. Here is the forecast for the afternoon starters: Dry and mostly sunny, 10-15 mph breeze.

It's Phil Mickelson's kind of weather.

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