LOS ANGELES – One shot clipped an ash tree and kept Phil Mickelson out of worse trouble than he was in. Another landed behind a Bottle Brush, blocking his path to the 10th green at Riviera. On yet another hole, Mickelson had to thread a 9-iron through the limbs of five eucalyptus trees.
So when he walked into the gallery to find his tee shot on the 15th hole and saw a man flat on his back, Mickelson assumed the worst.
“It wouldn’t be the first time, so I thought for sure I took him out,” Mickelson said Saturday.
Instead, the spectator was being still because the ball was inside the hem of his shorts.
Despite all these adventures, Mickelson managed a 1-under 70 on Saturday to share the lead with PGA champion Keegan Bradley in the Northern Trust Open.
On a day when “routine par” was not part of his vocabulary, Phil was thrilled.
“This was a great round for me because I did not play well, and I shot 1 under par, and I’m atop the leaderboard,” Mickelson said. “Usually when I win, I’ll have two good rounds, and I’ll have two rounds that aren’t so great that I’ve got to keep somewhere in it to give myself a chance.”
The last two days weren’t his best. He still has a great chance to end his West Coast swing with back-to-back wins.
The toughest part might be ahead of him.
Bradley took only five putts over the last five holes, including a 10-footer for par on the last hole that got him into the final group for a 5-under 66 and his best chance at a win since he captured the PGA Championship in August.
What made the par so meaningful was getting a chance to play with Mickelson, whom he considers a mentor. Mickelson invited Bradley in on one of his money games before The Players Championship, where Mickelson graciously showed him the nuances of TPC Sawgrass, until they reached the last green and the cash was on the line.
Mickelson told Bradley and Brendan Steele to get out their wallets, and then he poured in a putt.
“He’s a very competitive guy, but he’s very helpful at the same time,” Bradley said. “I thank him for his advice and help. But he’s going to try to beat me tomorrow, and I’m going to have to try to do the same.”
Even so, this is hardly a two-man race at Riviera.
Mickelson and Bradley were at 7-under 206, one shot ahead of Pat Perez (70), Jonathan Byrd (69) and Bryce Molder (66). Mickelson wasn’t the only player on a wild ride along the fabled course off Sunset Boulevard.
Molder one-putted the last eight greens, five of them for par. Perez three-putted from 10 feet on No. 3 and on the next hole took four putts from 60 feet on the fringe, the last three from inside 5 feet. Byrd took only 21 putts in 18 holes, courtesy of hitting only six greens in regulation.
“My short game was marvelous,” Byrd said.
Defending champion Aaron Baddeley had a 66, while Dustin Johnson chopped up the end of his round before a birdie on the 18th that gave him a 67. They were in the group two shots behind, along with FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, who had a 68.
Johnson three-putted from just outside 3 feet on the par-5 17th and made bogey.
“I’m going to come out tomorrow and give it everything I’ve got,” Johnson said.
Twelve players were within three shots of the lead, so it could be anyone’s game on Sunday. Mickelson still likes his position.
“I was six back last week, so I would prefer where I’m at this week,” he said.
Mickelson’s only regret was not taking advantage of birdie putts, missing from inside 8 feet on the ninth and 16th holes and not giving himself a chance on the par-5 17th when his wedge rolled off the front of the green.
Nothing was more entertaining, however, than his journey into, through and over the trees.
He pulled his tee shot so far right on the par-3 sixth that it was headed for the ivy-covered fence until clipping the ash tree and dropping down. Then, instead of hitting a lofted chip that could run to the pin, he chose to chip some 25 feet past the hole, have it run up the bank and come down. It rolled 12 feet past the hole, and he made it for a par.
On the par-4 eighth, which gives players the option of two fairways, Mickelson found his own route. He blasted a tee shot so far left it went over a white fence and landed at the base of the stairs of a corporate tent. After getting a free drop, he threaded a 9-iron through five eucalyptus trees to 12 feet.
It would have been one of the more amazing birdies in his career, except he missed the putt.
He was introduced to a Bottle Brush on the 10th. That was the name of the tree between the pin and where his tee shot landed. Mickelson caught a tiny branch and didn’t reach the green but hit a skillful pitch to 3 feet for par.
“I’ll get it turned around,” said Mickelson, who spoke to Butch Harmon after his round and headed to the practice range before his private-jet commute home to San Diego. “Today was a big day because if I didn’t fight hard and make pars from some of the places I was at, then I’d be trying to play catch-up to a lot of guys.
“Now, there’s a lot of players that are right in it, within a couple of shots of the lead,” he said. “And it’s going to take a good round tomorrow. But I’m pleased that I put myself in it.”