LOS ANGELES – First, he was channeling Seve.
Then he was channeling Arnie.
Mostly, though, it was pure Phil Mickelson orchestrating Saturday’s series of escape acts at the Northern Trust Open.
“This was a great round for me because I did not play well,” Mickelson said.
You might want to read that last sentence again. Mickelson actually said that. This is how magicians think. They always have you looking where they want you to look, baffling you with their misdirection.
And that’s the way Mickelson played Saturday, like a man with rabbits in his top hat and a mile of scarves up his sleeves.
Heck, Harry Houdini couldn’t have freed himself from some of the jams Mickelson kept working himself into at Riviera.
You could have strapped Mickelson in a straitjacket, wrapped him in chains and stuck him in a box, and he still would have found a way to make par at the eighth hole after slicing his drive somewhere toward the San Fernando Valley.
Mickelson posted his seventh consecutive round under par despite hitting tee shots off trees, behind staircases and bushes, and even into a man’s shorts.
That’s right, into a man’s shorts.
At the 15th hole, Mickelson pushed his tee shot into the crowd, where Mickelson was sure he must have hurt somebody. When he arrived at the shot, he spied a man on the ground.
“I thought I had taken him out,” Mickelson said. “It wouldn’t have been the first time.”
Mickelson chuckled when he saw his golf ball wedged in a hem at the bottom of the man’s shorts.
Of course, Mickelson made par from there.
With a 1-under-par 70, Mickelson scrambled to keep a share of the lead going into Sunday’s final round. He’s at 7 under with his new pal, Keegan Bradley, the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year who won twice last season, one of them the PGA Championship.
They’ll go off together with Bryce Molder, who shot 66 Saturday to move one off the lead.
They’ve got a lot of company squeezed in behind them. Talk about your L.A. traffic jams. This leaderboard is more crowded than the 405 at rush hour. There are 10 players within a shot of the lead.
“There are a lot of players right in it, within a couple shots of the lead,” Mickelson said. “It’s going to take a good round tomorrow, but I’m pleased I put myself in it.”
Mickelson called Saturday’s 70 a great round because “I did not play well, and I’m atop the leaderboard.”
The eighth hole pretty much summed up Mickelson’s day. He sliced his drive way left, through the stand of trees there and into a hospitality pavilion. His ball ended up behind a staircase and a bush. Even with relief from a man-made obstacle, Mickelson still had a difficult approach shot from 151 yards, through the trees.
When Mickelson took a whack with his 9-iron, Riviera went bonkers, fans whooping and hollering with Mickelson’s ball carving through an opening and winding up 14 feet from the hole.
“It was just a little 9-iron shot,” Mickelson said. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
That’s what magicians say when they make elephants appear out of nowhere.
Mickelson missed the birdie chance, but he kept scrapping despite too many wayward shots. He hit just seven fairways, just 10 greens in regulation.
Afterward, he immediately called his swing coach, Butch Harmon.
“I’ll get it turned around,” Mickelson said. “I’ve already talked to Butch. I’ve already got texts. I’ll go hit some balls and get it turned around for tomorrow. Today was a big day because if I didn’t fight hard and make pars from some of the places I was, I’d be trying to play catch-up.”
Instead, Mickelson will be trying to become the first player to win in back-to-back weeks since Tiger Woods did so three years ago.