CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When it comes to Phil Mickelson playing some vintage Mickelson-like golf, Saturday’s final stretch at the Wells Fargo Championship wasn’t exactly the “I’m such an idiot” finale of the 2006 U.S. Open, but it was still the stuff of classic Mickelson.
In case you’ve lost track over the last couple of decades, the ebullient and enigmatic left-hander has fostered a reputation as the consummate gambler, a walking, talking advertisement for the virtues of risk-reward golf.
Here he was once again, zig-zagging his way through both Quail Hollow Club and its ever-changing leaderboard. If any other competitor had flourished and faltered as quickly, he would have been saddled with roller-coaster-like symptoms for a brief spell. When Mickelson does it, that’s just Phil being Phil.
And in usual Mickelson fashion, it had him tied for the lead at day’s end.
It started on the 14th hole. On greens that have been a few measures short of perfect throughout the week, Mickelson has inexplicably excelled. Whereas others have struggled to find the right speed and navigate the unseemly bumpy top layer, he hadn’t missed a putt outside of 10 feet through the first two rounds.
He’s made a few lengthy ones, too. And that’s exactly what he did on 14, pouring in an 18-footer to claim sole possession of the lead.
“After I made that putt on 14, I felt really good,” he reported. “I thought I could get one on 15.”
The 15th hole is a par 5 that he’d already birdied one day earlier. This time, though, he pulled his drive way right, landing it just inches from the cart path.
“I got lucky on the tee shot that that didn't go out of bounds I missed it so bad,” he explained. “But the second shot should not have been a problem. It was a very easy lie to hit the shot I wanted to. I probably pulled the wrong club.”
Mickelson took 3-wood and this time roped one out of bounds, the result of hitting it dead straight rather than his planned fade.
After dropping in nearly the same spot for his fourth shot, Mickelson could be excused for wanting to change clubs – but hardly any other player would have made this type of change. Rather than 3-wood, he elected to hit driver and actually produced a much better result, landing it just short of the greenside bunker. From there, though, he would chip and two-putt for a double bogey.
Afterward, he blamed it on poor club selection rather than poor execution.
“Last year I hit the ball on 15 in the water left two or three times,” he recalled. “So with that right-to-left wind, I just gave it a little flip and hooked it and got lucky that the drive didn't go out of bounds. And the second shot should not have been a problem. If I had pulled the driver like I did the second time, it would have cut around no problem. I tried to do it with a 3-wood and it shot straight and went out of bounds. So it was a mistake on my part not hitting the correct club the first time.”
The drama didn’t end there, either. On 16, he found himself in the fairway with a possible chance to get a shot back. Instead, he’d find himself apologizing.
“I had 175 to the hole and 160 to the front edge,” he said. “I have what I call a Pelz 8-iron that flies 160. I thought I would work off of that and try to add a few yards. I came over the top a little bit, and it worked with the left-right wind and went 2 yards off the green.”
It was 2 yards too much.
“Unfortunately, it tagged a lady right in the head,” Mickelson said. “She was pretty cool about it, but boy, it didn't look good. I felt terrible about that.”
When asked the last time he hit a spectator, he deadpanned, “Oh, yesterday. I don't know. It happens a lot.”
Mickelson’s first chip rolled back down the greenside hill toward him, but from there he got up and down to save bogey in characteristic fashion.
Though he made par on each of the last two holes, he viewed that as somewhat of a failure, considering the circumstances entering the final round. With tee times already moved up because of impending inclement weather, Mickelson believed that a 54-hole lead could translate to a victory if the final round is washed away.
“There is a high likelihood we don't get the final round in with the weather coming in tomorrow and Monday, and a good chance that we'll end up having a one-hole playoff,” he explained. “I would have liked to have tried to increase the lead given the opportunities there with the few holes remaining, but I played poorly coming down the stretch, and I'm lucky to be tied for the lead – especially lucky to be tied for the lead if the final round gets washed out.”
Hey, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. As the quintessential gambler on the course, Mickelson knows all about needing a little luck on his side.