PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The only person standing between Phil Mickelson and his first PGA victory of the season is Canada’s Nick Taylor.
Mickelson and his sublime short game delivered more entertainment than all the athletes and celebrities for the Saturday show at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Mickelson made the impossible look easy from a bunker behind the par-3 seventh green at Pebble Beach. He holed out from a bunker for birdie on the 13th, and chipped in from 90 feet for birdie on the next hole.
When he rapped in one last birdie, Mickelson had a 5-under 67 and trailed Taylor of Abbotsford, B.C., by one shot going into the final round. Mickelson will be going for a record sixth title at Pebble Beach, and his first PGA Tour victory since he won this tournament last year.
Taylor had a cold and relatively quiet day, away from all the hits and giggles around the celebrity rotation at Pebble. He teed off at tough Spyglass Hill with a beanie and hand warmers because of heavy marine layer, warmed up as the sun broke through and made a 25-foot eagle putt late in his round for a 69.
Taylor was at 17-under 198 as he goes for his second PGA Tour victory, and first since he won the Sanderson Farms Championship in his fourth start as a tour rookie.
Mickelson hit a flop shot over the bunker on the par-5 18th – how did that one not go in? – to pull within one shot. They will be in the final group, along with their amateur partners. Mickelson has former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, while Taylor has Golf Digest editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde.
Taylor and Mickelson have never played together.
“It’s going to be a new experience for that reason, if I am playing with him,” Taylor said. “Obviously, if he makes a putt or great shot, the crowd’s going to go wild. I’ve just got to do my own thing, try to block all that out. Easier said than done, without having to do it before, but I’ll do the best I can.”
This is a two-man show; however, Jason Day posted a 70 at Spyglass Hill and was only three shots behind at 14-under 201.
For others, it was a waste opportunity.
Pebble Beach had more wind than earlier in the week, but still gentle enough that low scores were available. Dustin Johnson, a two-time winner at Pebble, was in striking range and could manage only a 72, leaving him eight shots back. Patrick Cantlay, at No. 8 in the world, played the final six holes in 2 over for a 72 and was nine shots back.
Mickelson started with a pair of birdies. He took a share of the lead with a birdie on the par-5 sixth.
And then the fun began.
His wedge on the 110-yard seventh hole that drops down into the Pacific went long and plugged in the back bunker, impossible because of the back pin and a fast green that slopes toward the front. He splashed out so perfectly that it took a few hops in the rough before reaching the green, slow enough to stop 2 feet away for a tap-in par.
Even for Mickelson, it rates among his best.
Then, his 50-foot bunker shot on the tough eighth rolled inches from the cup on No. 8. More trouble supposedly awaited on the 13th when his approach peeled into the left bunker. He raised both arms when that dropped. And on the par-5 14th, he made a mistake by not hitting his punch wedge hard enough. It rolled down the slope, off the green and back into the fairway. Mickelson’s long chip from 90 feet banged into the pin and dropped for birdie.
Mickelson missed two birdie putts from inside 10 feet. And while he hit only nine greens in regulation, he usually had a reasonable angle to the pin to save par – or make birdie, as was the case twice for him.
That leaves a Sunday with plenty at stake for the leading three players.
Mickelson said earlier in the week he would not accept a special exemption for the U.S. Open if he needed one. A victory at Pebble – the 45th of his career – would go a long way toward solving that.
Taylor can validate his first win since his rookie season, an opposite-field event at the time. The Canadian has never been to the Masters and has played in only four majors, two as an amateur.
Day, meanwhile, is a former No. 1 who spent most of last year injured and frustrated. He has gone nearly two years since his last win, and was in danger of falling out of the top 50 if he didn’t starting getting better results.