Going against his nature, Mickelson played it safe again Saturday and wound up with a 4-under 68 to share the lead with Bill Haas going into the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open. Haas missed a 4-foot putt par putt on the last hole for a 71.
It has been 10 years since Mickelson won his third title at Torrey Pines, a public course he grew up playing in San Diego.
“I love playing well in this tournament, and I’ve missed it,” Mickelson said.
Tiger Woods, who has not lost a tournament at Torrey Pines since 2004, shot himself out of the tournament with careless mistakes. Woods had a 2-over 74, ending his streak of 21 rounds at par or better on the South Course in PGA Tour events. He was eight shots behind, his largest 54-hole deficit at Torrey since 2004.
Even with his longtime nemesis out of the way, Mickelson doesn’t see an easy path to winning.
Haas is coming off a two-win season in 2010, and lost in a playoff a week ago at the Bob Hope Classic. He kept making enough birdies to keep in front of Mickelson, including a 25-foot putt on the 15th, the toughest on the course.
They were at 12-under 204.
Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson each made eagle on the par-5 18th to shoot 69 and were one shot behind. Another shot back was Anthony Kim, showing signs of turning his game. Kim escaped with only a bogey on the 15th after an adventure through the eucalyptus trees, and birdied the 18th for a 71.
John Daly, who pulled within one shot of the lead early in the third round, fell apart with a string of bogeys and shot 76.
Mickelson has taken every opportunity to criticize the South Course since Rees Jones redesigned it ahead of the 2008 U.S. Open. Lefty has yet to finish higher than fourth since then.
This time, Mickelson decided not to go for broke.
“I’m not taking on the risk. I’m just playing it much more conservative because the reward isn’t there,” he said. “This course doesn’t reward you for taking on any challenge. And my more conservative approach into the greens, albeit boring, has led me to be on top of the leaderboard.”
Only eight players managed to break 70 on “college day” at the tournament, when players were encouraged to wear their college colors or their team logos. Mickelson, who didn’t have any Arizona State garb on, matched D.A. Points for the low round.
Haas didn’t make too many mistakes, and pulled ahead with two good birdies. With the tee back in U.S. Open territory on the 13th, making it play over 600 yards, Haas nearly got home with a 3-wood that set up and easy up-and-down birdie. All that kept him out of the lead was a wedge that bounced over the firm 18th green into the rough.
Woods started the third round only five shots behind, and that was as close as he got.
It what has become a troublesome theme for Woods this week, the wedge is what held him back. From just over 100 yards in the fairway, he dumped a wedge into a bunker and left himself no shot, blasting out to 20 feet for bogey. That was followed by a three-putt bogey, and a bunker-to-bunker bogey on the fifth hole.
He picked up birdies on the par 5s on the front nine, and played 1 over the rest of the way. When he was in the fairway with a short iron or a wedge, he never gave himself many looks at birdie.
“I did not play well at all today,” Woods said. “It was a struggle all day, and I finally found something at 16, but 15 holes already had bone by. So that was pretty frustrating.”
A new season might bring an end to yet another streak for Woods. He has never finished out of the top 10 in his 12 tournaments as a pro, and ended Saturday in a tie for 24th.
The star of his group was Jhonattan Vegas, the Venezuela rookie coming off a playoff win at the Hope. He made his first meeting with Woods seem like an ordinary round. With some good par saves and a two-putt birdie at the end, he wound up beating Woods by five shots and still has a chance to win the tournament.
Vegas was at 9-under 207, only three shot out of the lead.
“I felt comfortable playing with him,” Vegas said. “And the crowd was crazy, but it was fun. I enjoyed it.”
Few people are having more fun than Mickelson, who hopes to have discovered how to win at Torrey Pines, and is relishing in having his wife, Amy, mingling in the crowd at a golf tournament for the first time since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2009. She showed up at the 18th green at the Masters when Mickelson won last year, and spent much of her time in a golf cart at the soggy Ryder Cup in Wales.
Mickelson now faces a familiar name. He has spent far more time playing with Jay Haas than his 28-year-old son, although he has seen enough of Bill Haas to know Sunday will require a lot of patience and a few putts.
There is nothing fancy about Haas except the fact he won twice last year and has another good chance Sunday.