If ever asked to encapsulate the capricious career of five-time major winner Phil Mickelson, just point to a highlights reel of the American’s third round on Saturday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Any viewing should place particular emphasis on the final hole as the way he tackled the closing 520 metres of play was quintessential Mickelson.
“I don’t know, that’s just what I do,” the world No 5 said after he was asked to describe how he had just mixed the substandard with the sublime to fall one shot short of the championship’s course record.
His stunning 63 in blustery mid-morning conditions catapulted Mickelson to near the apex of the leaderboard.
“It was a fun day,” he said, before shifting attention to the last-hole histrionics. “It felt terrific to see that ball go in.”
So it should have, as it took a while to reach its destination.
Having made pars on the previous two holes and in a tie for the lead, Mickelson flew his final tee shot into the bunker on the corner of the par-5, ignored caddie Jim “Bones” MacKay’s advice to lay up and sliced his hybrid right across the fairway and onto the sand “waste” just short of the hospitality pavilion that guards the green.
“It probably wasn’t my smartest move,” he said. “But I’ve been known to do that a few times.”
Mickelson has spent much of his 22 years on the professional circuit walking the tightrope between genius and insanity. This time, his follow-up was positively Einsteinian.
With 90m to the pin and his ball nestled behind a tree, the American threaded a thinned wedge through a gap in the woodland that checked on the fringe of the putting surface and settled 12m from the cup.
From there, he drained his putt, of course, and seized the outright lead. Cue the day’s loudest cheer.
In all, Mickelson conjured nine birdies and an eagle to confirm that the kinks in his early-season swing seem to have been well and truly ironed out.
Butch Harmon, his trusted coach based in the US, has provided tips and titbits of information these past few days, having viewed video footage of his star pupil on the Abu Dhabi range. The results are pretty conclusive.
“The first day I felt terrible off the tee, terrible with the irons and my putter was awful,” Mickelson said of an opening 73.
A more refined second round, when his putter worked much better than the rest of his clubs, ensured the tournament’s big draw only narrowly made the cut. Typical Mickelson, then, that from out of nowhere he carved his way through a National Course playing as tough as it has done in its nine-year tournament history.
“It’s finally starting to click,” Mickelson said.
He is certainly ticking along nicely. Saluted by a strong gallery throughout his third round, Mickelson ratcheted up the noise with a chip-in birdie from the bunker on four, a supreme hybrid to 12 foot on the eighth to set up eagle, while a snaking 25-footer putt on 13 secured a birdie and prompted even more hoopla and holler.
That a couple of bogeys snuck their way onto his scorecard just enriched the Mickelson myth. He has constructed a career out at left field.
Worryingly for his rivals this week, who include a resurgent Rory McIlroy, the reigning British Open champion still sees room for improvement.
“The biggest thing for me is that each day as the tournament’s progressed I’ve felt sharper and sharper,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know how far back I’ll be or what I need to shoot tomorrow, but the fact I have a chance is a great way to start the year.”
Nothing like a few days in the sun to kick-start preparations for Augusta, eh? The Masters, the calendar’s first major, may at present form just a little dot on the horizon, yet Mickelson, owner of three green jackets already, has the route to the April event mapped out.
His first tournament of the 2014 campaign might not yet be concluded, but his game appears shipshape.
“Heading into the majors, you want to have some opportunities to win golf tournaments,” he said. “You want to feel that pressure, that nervousness, and to be able to feel that the first week of the year is awesome.”
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