AKRON, Ohio – Phil Mickelson is closing in on No. 1.
The first step is to make up a one-shot deficit against Retief Goosen, the 36-hole leader Friday at the Bridgestone Invitational. Looking more inevitable is Mickelson finally supplanting Tiger Woods atop the world ranking.
Goosen turned bogey into birdie by chipping in from 25 yards off the green at No. 4, sending him on his way to a 4-under 66 that gave him a one-shot lead over Mickelson and Justin Leonard (66) going into the weekend at Firestone.
Even as Goosen led another assault on par in soft conditions, Woods continued to look as ordinary as ever. The seven-time champion at Firestone hit only three fairways and stumbled to a 2-over 72 – the first time he has ever had consecutive rounds over par at this tournament – that put him 13 shots out of the lead, and five players removed from last place.
Woods had no intention of speaking to reporters, instead walking to his car and driving away.
He has been No. 1 in the world since the week before the 2005 U.S. Open, but would lose his top ranking if Mickelson were to finish in fourth place alone and Woods – who is tied for 72nd – finishes out of the top 44.
“Obviously, it would be cool,” Mickelson said. “It would be something I would love to do, being regarded as No. 1 according to the ranking. And I know that I’ve got a great opportunity this week. I know that I’m playing well, and this is my best opportunity.”
But he still has 36 holes in front of him on a course that has rewarded good shots with low scores.
Despite a bogey on the final hole, Goosen was at 7-under 133 as he tries to win his first World Golf Championship. It doesn’t figure to be easy, not so much because of Firestone, rather the number of players chasing him.
Sixteen players were separated by four shots going into the weekend.
That includes Bubba Watson (71) in the group at 5-under 135, Adam Scott (70), Lucas Glover (66) and Paul Casey (68) at 136, and Rory McIlroy (69) and Dustin Johnson (65) in the group at 137.
“Every part of your game needs to be good here, driving especially,” Goosen said. “You need to hit it on the fairway, otherwise you’re struggling.”
As Woods and Mickelson showed, that depends.
Woods, who started on the back nine, didn’t hit a fairway until the 17th hole, and it got so bad on the 14th hole that his drive landed in a bunker on the 13th hole. He still scrambled for par and was even on the front nine, but too many errant shots caught up with him.
Mickelson wasn’t much better – he hit only six fairways – but he made the most of his chances.
“I didn’t play great today. I was a little off,” Mickelson said. “I hit some bad shots, and I was able to salvage a lot of pars today.”
But he had a three-hole stretch of not making any pars, which is what makes Lefty so entertaining. His tee shot on the 14th went into the same bunker on the wrong hole that Woods visited earlier, only Mickelson tried to take it over the trees and clipped some branches. When he finally got around the green, he missed a 5-footer and took double bogey.
Mickelson followed with a 4-iron into 20 feet for birdie, and a 12-foot birdie on the 16th.
Even his last two pars were not typical. He drove it so far right on the 17th that before leaving the tee, Mickelson reached into his bag for a glove and signed his name with a frown and the words, “Sorry.” He figured he had hit a fan, and he was right.
“The hazards of following me,” Mickelson told him.
He got up and down for par with a deft chip over the bunker, then saved par on the 18th with a long bunker shot by the green that caught the top of the hill perfectly and rolled to within tap-in range.
Mickelson won at Firestone in 1996 when it was the old World Series of Golf, and he had an excellent chance in 2008 when Woods had the year off with knee surgery.
Woods has never finished worse than fourth at Firestone, which is certain to change.
He was hitting smother-hooks on the range and took that to the golf course, where only his short game kept the score from getting out of hand. Even so, Woods will be finished with his third round Saturday some two hours before the leaders tee off.
That means the world’s No. 1 player – for the next two days, anyway – will go to the PGA Championship needing to play his best of the year to make the Ryder Cup team. And he might not last very long in the four-tournament playoff system on the PGA Tour after that.
At least he’ll be back on Saturday.
That won’t be the case for Lee Westwood, the world’s No. 3 player who was paired with Woods for two days. Westwood has been battling soreness in his left ankle for the last month, and it finally reached a point where he withdrew Friday from the Bridgestone Invitational, and from the PGA Championship next week.