SAN DIEGO – Southern California has always admired Tiger Woods for his skill and tenacity more so than his is Left Coast lineage. But on Saturday at Torrey Pines, the epicenter of SoCal golf, it was clear they love Phil Mickelson.
Even a muted Phil, reined in by a golf course that doesn’t shine to his kind of swashbuckling play and a body that is closer to 50 than it is 25, is worth his weight in In-n-Out burgers.
Woods has won at Torrey Pines more than 10 times, from his junior golf days to that sun-splashed June afternoon in 2008 when he limped his way to U.S. Open immortality. But Phil is San Diego like the Chargers and traffic on the “5.”
If golf needs a Tiger Woods recovery, the SoCal golf faithful need a Phil Mickelson reclamation project. On Saturday, before thousands of the faithful, Lefty moved to within 18 holes of giving them their wish.
That it took a decade for Mickelson to figure out all the twists and turns of Rees Jones’ 2001 tinkering of the South Course is a debate for another day. Could the learning curve have been accelerated? Sure. Has he been a tad hard-headed coming to terms with the new South, “Sure, absolutely,” he admitted.
The solution, at least through 54 at the Farmers Insurance Open, has been patience and safe play, which – in all honestly – are mutually exclusive to Mickelson’s don’t-play-it-safe DNA.
“I'm not taking on the risk, I'm just playing it much more conservative, because the reward isn't there,” said Mickelson following a third-round 68 that tied him with Bill Haas for the Torrey Pines lead. “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.”
Before Jones got in his head and Woods turned Torrey into his professional playground, Phil was the best part of the seaside muni. It was the site of his second Tour victory, and his first as a professional, in 1993 and when he won back-to-back Torrey titles in 2000 and 2001 all seemed right in the SoCal world.
But later that summer Jones started tinkering, and the next year Mickelson missed just his fourth cut at Torrey Pines. Things have not been the same since. At least not until Saturday.
Seventy-nine players made the cut at a golf tournament, but watched on Saturday as a raucous episode of American Idol broke out, complete with a Teen Beat Rickie (Fowler), a bona fide Bubba (Watson) and the Thrill, albeit a somewhat subdued version of the original.
A little longer in the tooth since he won here last, slowed by life and injury, but make no mistake, when firing Mickelson is still “The Thrill,” an “A” ticket ride that demands undivided attention or risk missing something good.
These are the facts, Lefty turned in 33 after birdies at Nos. 1, 4, 7 and 9, made an alignment correction on the fly, carved a 4-iron to a front-left pin at the 16th for birdie and heads into the final round at Torrey Pines with a share of the lead. It’s the first time he’s done that since . . . wait for it, 2000.
In fact, he hasn’t been closer than two shots to the lead through 54 holes since 2001.
Last week, following Woods’ commitment to his event, Farmers Insurance tournament director Tom Wilson admitted, “It’s been a tough couple years for us with the weather and economy and not having Tiger.”
Similarly it’s been a tough couple of years for Mickelson. Rattled by health concerns with his wife and mother, virtually sidelined by a rare form of arthritis last year and a non-story on Sundays following his emotional victory at last year’s Masters, he needed a Torrey Pines boost.
Shortly after his 2010 Masters triumph Lefty flirted with the world’s top ranking, the only accolade that’s eluded him in a Hall of Fame career. But now he’s closer to No. 20 (2.14 average points) than he is No. 1 (2.7).
In many ways, Mickelson needed Torrey Pines and a home-field advantage almost as much as the hordes needed him.
“He’s a hometown boy,” said Watson, who was paired with Mickelson on Saturday. “If we had a tournament in Bagdad, Fla., and no one cheered I’d be upset.”
At the 2008 Torrey Pines Open Mickelson tried to play one of the longest courses in U.S. Open history with no driver in his bag. So far this week he seems to be playing with no worries.
He says it’s the byproduct of a decade of field work on Jones’ handiwork on the South. Perhaps, but a multitude of smiling faces, both known and anonymous, has certainly helped. Among the latter has been Amy Mickelson, a Tour staple for years before cancer kept her from her duties just outside the ropes.
“It's been a lot of fun having Amy out here this week. She just looks terrific. After a year and a half we're in such a better place, and it's been a lot of fun having her out here,” Mickelson said.
As Mickelson exited the 18th green on Saturday, a mob scene reminiscent of the 2008 U.S. Open, the only thing missing from his escape was the Ron Burgundy catch phrase, “Stay classy San Diego.” But then maybe it’s best to save that for Sunday.