PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Nick Taylor knows what he’s up against Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
After securing his 54-hole lead at Spyglass Hill Saturday, he may have heard what’s coming in the final round. When Phil Mickelson almost holed out a bold, slashing flop shot at the 18th over at Pebble Beach Golf Links, a roar swept across the Monterey Peninsula.
And moments later, when Mickelson buried the 5-footer left for birdie, another roar shook the grounds.
Mickelson’s 5-under-par 67 left him at 16-under overall, one shot behind Taylor (69).
Even before Mickelson’s finish, Taylor knew what kind of challenge may lie ahead.
“If I end up playing with Phil, I’m sure I won’t be the crowd favorite,” he said.
Taylor will need more than a single stone for his sling shot Sunday.
Goliath is going to have a noisy army parading after him.
The show Mickelson put on Saturday sounded like a pep rally.
With a brilliant display of short-game magic, Mickelson got a lot of folks fired up for his run at winning a record sixth AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am title. He holed out from a bunker at the 13th for birdie. He chipped in at the 14th for another birdie.
Those weren’t even his best shots of the day.
His escape from the bunker aside that seventh green, which so majestically juts out into Stillwater Cove, didn’t find the bottom of the cup, but it was such a dicey play. The tap-in par he left himself with felt like a stolen shot.
Even the sea otters were barking and clapping.
OK, maybe not, but Mickelson’s imagination wasn’t running away alone on that rugged shoreline. His frustration not being able to visualize shots while missing the first two cuts this year is a fading memory. He’s seeing shots nobody else can see again.
“Didn’t go in, but it was the second-best bunker shot I’ve ever hit,” Mickelson said.
If you’re curious, he ranks a hole out from a plugged lie under the lip of a greenside bunker at Muirfield Village’s 16th hole during the Memorial one year as his best.
There was yet another near hole out from the bunker at the 8th.
“I had a pretty good day with my short game,” Mickelson said.
Yeah, and the Pebble Beach Company’s Clint Eastwood has had a pretty good career.
Mickelson is looking for his 45th PGA Tour title. He tied Mark O’Meara for most AT&T Pebble Beach titles claiming his fifth a year ago.
At 49 years, 7 months and 24 days old, Mickelson wouldn’t be the oldest winner of a PGA Tour title if Sunday goes his way. Sam Snead was 52 years, 10 months and 8 days old when he won the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965. Mickelson would be the eighth oldest winner.
Mickelson’s motivation doesn’t seem to be about his age.
It’s about how winning never gets old.
“It’s what drives me,” he said. “What really motivates me is the challenge to win, compete and beat such great players in the game today.”
Taylor, 31, is a PGA Tour winner. He claimed the Sanderson Farms as a rookie back in 2014, but he has never held a 54-hole lead before.
He’s also never played with Mickelson before.
“Just got to keep my head down, do my thing and keep playing, because I've been playing well,” Taylor said.
When he won the Sanderson Farms, Taylor did so coming from four shots back.
Mickelson made a big deal about how he was “hitting bombs” coming into this season, and he talked about the importance of “speed” in his swing earlier this week, but his head and short game skills were key to his charge on Saturday.
“In the first couple of tournaments, I ended up not really controlling my thoughts and my visualization very well,” he said. “These last two weeks, I've started to see things a lot clearer and execute a lot better, without any type of negativity. So, I've been much more assertive and aggressive and controlling my mind a little bit better.”
His legion of followers is loving it on the Monterey Peninsula.