PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – There was no other choice: Lefty had to play righty.
And that choice on the ninth hole almost became a footnote to Phil Mickelson’s wild third round on Saturday.
Lefty went home Saturday night seven shots out of the lead after a chaotic 2-over 73 that included right-handed shots, some remarkable saves and a trip to the beach on the 18th.
Unable to find any consistency, Mickelson did his best to give back much of what he accomplished a day earlier when his 5-under 66 got himself back near the top of the leaderboard.
Now he enters the final round needing to post a low number and hoping for the leaders to falter.
“I’m quite a few shots back, probably a few more shots back than I thought I would be … but anything can happen on Sunday,” Mickelson said.
Unable to continue the magic of a day earlier when the perpetual U.S. Open runner up raced back into contention, Mickelson tried taking multiple steps backward on Saturday.
He missed putts that dropped a day earlier. He tried questionable shots. Worst of all, Mickelson failed to take advantage of Pebble Beach’s front nine that was ripe for scoring.
“I just gave back shots here and there,” he said.
The result: a shaky round only buoyed by a trio of remarkable shots on the final three holes that left Mickelson in the chase position entering Sunday’s final round.
That’s not a bad place for Mickelson. His last two titles – the Masters and Players Championship – were in come-from-behind fashion. But those weren’t seven-shot deficits and on courses being primed to prevent low rounds.
“Yeah, Sunday at the Open a lot of things can happen. And I’ll be off with the leaders, and I need to get hot in those first seven holes that you can make birdies,” Mickelson said. “You can makeup a lot of ground if you make birdies Sunday at the U.S. Open. It will be challenging to make up that many shots.”
Saturday was the erratic Mickelson, spraying shots all over Pebble Beach, scrambling to avoid imploding and making a handful of key shots to keep hope alive.
He rolled in a birdie putt at the 16th to get back to 1 over, only to pull his tee shot on the 17th near the grandstand well right of the green. Mickelson avoided bogey by getting relief from the grandstand, then deftly dropping a wedge within gimmie range.
Then came the 18th. His tee shot leaked to the left and danced along Pebble’s perilous seawall before bounding into the rocks and beach below. Mickelson climbed down and momentarily thought about playing from the beach before taking a penalty.
It might have been his best decision of the day. From 242 yards Mickelson hit a long iron to about 30 feet then two-putted for a most unlikely par.
“I fought hard. I made some ridiculous up and downs out there today,” Mickelson said, noting par saving shots on the 10th from the fescue and out of a bunker on the 14th. “It was fortunate to keep me in the round and in striking distance.”
Like many others on moving day, for every step forward, Mickelson took one, and sometimes two steps back.
The USGA gave the players the blueprint: get your shots early, because we’re going to take them from you late. Tees were moved forward on No. 3, giving players the chance to cut the dogleg and leave a wedge into the green. The fourth hole was shortened to 284 yards, meaning long hitters could use a long iron to reach the par 4 from the tee.
Mickelson failed to do that. He bogeyed his first two holes with careless mistakes. He rallied with a birdie at the fifth before an adventure on the ninth.
Mickelson pulled his tee shot on the 505-yard, downhill par 4 that hugs the Pacific coastline, finding a fairway bunker. He tried to make sure he blasted free with an 8 iron from more than 200 yards, but caught the lip of the bunker and went all of 20 yards into thick rough. His third from a twisted patch of rough was pulled into a thatch of long fescue on the cliff edge, forcing Mickelson to hit his fourth shot right handed.
But Mickelson didn’t let the double bogey on the ninth or his other miscues completely derail his round.
“I don’t feel like I got myself out of trouble I put myself in trouble a lot and maybe I escaped a little bit,” Mickelson said. “It still got me.”