Mickelson moves up, Woods sideways on Saturday at Players Championship

May 10, 2010

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — How weird. At 2 in the afternoon, Phil Mickelson’s workday was done, and he was contending. The 36-hole leader, Lee Westwood, was still warming up on a hot and humid day in May, and Phil was done. Nothing to work on — not after a li’l 66 built on one good shot after another — and nothing to do, except get a burger at Five Guys. Again. Fifth straight day for the lefthander at the Guys. In southern California, where he lives, Phil’s loyal to In-N-Out. But here in northern Florida, it’s Five Guys or bust.

And in other golfing news, world No. 1 Tiger Woods shot a workmanlike 71 on Saturday, so-called moving day, giving him a 54-hole total of 212, four under par. He, like Mickelson, began the day at three under par.

On Friday, Tour officials, who sweat over this event each year as if they were delivering a child, were worried that Woods might miss the cut. He made the cut with a shot to spare. They hoped his Saturday golf would be good enough to earn him some TV time for the Mother’s Day finale. Unless he goes out and pulls a Ryo — shoots a 58 — you’re not going to see much of Tiger on Sunday. Next stop where you’ll see him? The best guess is the Memorial, in early June.

Phil, on the other hand, will be all over your TV on Mother’s Day, and if his mother (Mary) and the mother of his children (Amy) want to see him, all they have to do is turn on NBC. His Saturday play was spectacular. Can you imagine playing the TPC Sawgrass with no score on your card higher than a four? Phil nearly did it on Saturday. Through 17, nothing but 2s and 3s and 4s on his card. On 18, hit a 3-iron off the tee. (Only Phil, right?) He smoked an iron that trickled over the green. The 60-footer was uphill and downhill and Phil decided to putt it. He barely got it up the hill, left himself with an 11-footer for par and missed it. Not really that big a deal, except that he could have posted 10 under. And double-digits under par just sounds better. That let’s you enjoy your Five Guys burger that much more.

“From my point of view, double digits under par looks a lot better than single, and so that bogey on the last stings,” Mickelson said early Saturday afternoon. “I just have to go out tomorrow and shoot a low round. I just hope I’m in striking distance.”

Moments later, world No. 1 Tiger Woods, upon being asked if he can contend, said, “I need a Ryo.” Actually, he didn’t say that, because Tiger doesn’t talk like that. But he did talk to the press, as he has in all of his nine rounds since returning to the Tour after his self-imposed exile. What he said was, “I need a lot of help. I’ve got to play just a great round of golf. I need so much help, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case. There are too many guys out there.”

Mickelson will have more at stake in his Mother’s Day round, and more of a chance. He has the same problem Tiger has, but to a lesser degree. “It’s not how many shots,” Mickelson said, talking about making up ground in the finale. “It’s how many people. We’ve seen for multiple years now leaders fall back.”

On Saturday, Mickelson played with Troy Merritt, the Q-School medalist. It was the first time they had played together. Merritt, skinnier than a scorecard pencil and loaded with new-guy appeal, loved his round with Phil. “He asked me a few questions, he got to know me,” Merritt said. Merritt got to know Phil up-close-and-personal. “Bombed a drive right down the middle, the way the top players do,” Merritt said, reliving Phil’s 11th hole, the long par-5. The drive was 300 yards. The shot in was 230, over water and sand, to a front left hole. It was impossible.
“And he hits this 4-iron. It looks like a 4-iron. And it’s right over the pin. If I’m there, I’m trying the same thing. But I don’t know that I’m gonna pull it off.” Phil took two putts from 10 feet and walked off with another 4.

Phil Phever was not out of control on Saturday, the day Phil’s caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay turned 45. Too hot, too humid and the course is wide (in many places) and moundy — spectators are often far from the action. After Augusta, the all-time leader for spectator involvement, and Quail Hollow, which doesn’t lag Augusta by much in that regard, there’s something flat about The Players in May. The stands around the 18th green were about two-thirds filled when Phil was finishing up on Saturday. Kids waited patiently for him to sign autographs, no shrieking. He signed away, as per usual, his eyes red and watery with allergies.

Mickelson and Woods, Nos. 2 and 1 in the world right now, started Saturday in the same place, in relation to par, but that’s about it. Tiger is looking for a way back to golf, as he plays it. Phil is looking to have the monster, monster year. On Sunday, he’ll have a chance to secure a stage of the Mickelslam: the four majors and the mini-major in the same calendar year. There’s only one man who can do it this year, win the Masters, the Players, the U.S. and British Opens, and the PGA Championship. To secure the second step, Phil doesn’t need a Ryo. He doesn’t even need a Rory. (That would be 62, his closing score in Charlotte last week.) All he needs is a Bonesy Birthday Special, a repeat of his Saturday 66.

That would get him to 15 under par. And that might be low enough to win.