Phil Mickelson tried to walk it home and he nearly did.
“I couldn’t envision which side of the hole it could possibly miss on, and it ended up somehow just dying off at the end, catching the lip,” Mickelson said.
Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s caddy, took a hop, a side-step and then collapsed to his knees as the putt for 59 lipped out.
“He could not have hit a better putt,” Mackay said.
Although TPC Scottsdale might not be considered hallowed golfing ground, the 11 birdies that Mickelson had made caught the attention of some tortured golfing soul, who decreed that enough was enough, that Mickelson would not enter the pantheon of those who break 60. For all of us, 11 birdies in a round would be a highlight that might surpass the birth of a child or an acceptance to an Ivy League school. For a professional golfer like Mickelson, it was an opportunity to make 12, and he certainly tried.
The round began on the back side of the course known for its rocking fans. After approach shots inside 10 feet led to birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 (his first two holes of the day), Mickelson nearly aced No. 12, stuffing an iron to two feet for a third-consecutive birdie. A wayward drive to the native area in the No. 13 fairway nearly cost Mickelson a shot, as he was forced to pitch out some 90 yards, leaving over 160 in. Undaunted, he stuffed yet another approach to two feet, for a fourth-consecutive strike against par. After a terrific lag putt from more than 50 feet on his fifth hole, Mickelson had another chance at a stroke-save, but missed an eight-foot birdie try on No. 15.
Coming to the stadium setting on the famous par-3 16th, Mickelson’s efforts to move the needle were rewarded as he slipped an approach 17 feet from the hole and then nailed the putt to reach five-under. Two more birdies on Nos. 17 and 18 (from four and 15 feet, respectively) brought the southpaw to seven-under and the crowd to its feet.
The train found little reason to slow its pace as the back nine commenced. Lefty buried a 22-footer on No. 1 (his 10th hole) and a 13-foot effort on No. 4. Sandwiched between were an up-and-down par on No. 2 and a tap-in from a foot and a half on No. 3. Looking back at the round, the recovery for par on the second hole kept the momentum going. After a hot approach that flew long and left of the green, Mickelson pitched to 11 feet with his third, but coaxed the par putt home.
Standing on No. 5 tee, Mickelson had to know that two more birdies would bring him to 12-under par, a 59 against TPC-Scottsdale’s par of 71. The way his game had revealed itself to that point, who among the crowd would have bet against him? On Wednesday, Phil Mickelson shared his affinity for the course with reporters:
“The thing I love about TPC Scottsdale is its risk-reward,” Mickelson told reporters. “You have so many opportunities to go for it, try to make birdies or eagles, but with great penalty if you don’t pull the shot off because there’s so much water, especially the last six, seven holes of the golf course.”
The risk-reward design of the course nearly derailed his march against history. An average approach from 160 yards led to a 43-foot, two-putt for par on No. 5, followed by a near-mucking of No. 6. After his new Callaway driver put him in the left rough, Mickelson once again caught a flyer and sailed the green, leaving a pitch-back of some 10 yards. Lefty snuggled the ball inside five feet and drained a twitchy little nod to keep hope alive.
The swashbuckler strode to No. 7’s tee and stuck an iron inside seven feet, as if to say “Yes, I can birdie all the par 3s.” And he did, knocking the approach putt in for the fourth two on his scorecard.
“Probably the best shot of the day because it’s a tucked little pin over that bunker and I hit a 6-iron to four or five feet,” Mickelson said. “It was really a good shot from 196 yards.”
Moving to No. 8, his penultimate, the game was truly on. In order to gain access to a small and heralded corps, Mickelson would need to find a way to birdie one of two par 4 holes that exceeded 460 yards in length. A two-putt par from 18 feet set the stage for the last-hole ebb and flow that tied the course record and staked Mickelson to an early four-stroke lead.
Mickelson hinted that he was close to the game he wanted each of the last two weeks. Might Tiger Woods’ victory at Torrey Pines, Mickelson’s San Diego home turf, have inspired Lefty to ratchet his game up? Check around Sunday night for the answer.