You would be hard-pressed to find a player on the PGA Tour who has more history with and more of a connection to Pebble Beach than Phil Mickelson. His grandfather, Al Santos, grew up in Monterey and hired on as a caddie at the brand-new Pebble Beach Golf Links when it first opened, in February 1919. After taking the lead in the third round on Saturday, February 13, Mickelson may be adding to that history.
Mickelson’s feelings about Pebble Beach came through in comments he made after completing his round, “It’s such a spiritual place, if you love golf the way we all do, to have such a beautiful setting and a historic site is fun to play well on.”
Playing well at Pebble Beach is something Phil Mickelson is accustomed to. He has won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am four times, in 1998, 2005, 2007, and 2012, a record that is second only to the five wins recorded by Mark O’Meara between 1985 and 1997; and his wins have come in three separate decades, a distinction he shares with Johnny Miller, who won here in 1974, 1987, and 1994.
The 54-hole lead that Phil scrambled his way into at Pebble Beach in Saturday’s third round is the first such lead he has held since the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. The justly-famous Phil Mickelson short game was on display in the six-under 66 he carded to take a two-stroke lead into the tournament’s final round.
Hitting only nine greens in regulation, four of those on the par-3’s, Mickelson marched through greenside rough and more sand than Lawrence of Arabia – including the infamous front bunker at #8 – on his way to the second-lowest score of the day on any of the three courses in the tournament rota. Only 2014 AT&T champion Jimmy Walker posted a lower round, a 63 that included a bogey on the par-4 tenth.
Despite woes with a new driver he had just put into play, Mickelson opened the tournament with a four-under 68 in the first round, at Spyglass Hill, traditionally the more difficult of the three courses, and posted a six-under 65 on Friday, at the par-71 Monterey Peninsula Country Club course, after reverting to his previous driver. Despite the switch his driving was not outstanding in Saturday’s round, and with only six fairways hit, his wizardry around, and on, the greens is what carried the day.
Mickelson’s mastery of Pebble’s notorious greens, with the difficulty of their subtle breaks compounded by a billiard-table firmness brought on by a week of sunshine and light breezes, was the real key to his round. Though not as dramatic as the greenside bunker shots and high-arcing flop shots out of greenside rough, the four two-putt greens, and a curling 33-foot chip-in from just off the green on the 18th hole led to a remarkable 4.451 strokes gained-putting statistic on the day.
It’s hard to say from what quarter Mickelson is most likely to face competition during the final round. Of his closest pursuers – those within four strokes – only two, Freddie Jacobson and Jonas Blixt, have PGA Tour wins to their credit. If Jimmy Walker, seven strokes off the lead despite the nine-under 63 he posted in the third round, can reprise that performance, he might be the man who is sitting in the clubhouse waiting to see if the four-time winner can match his number. Defending champion Brandt Snedeker is out of the picture, fourteen strokes back, as is AT&T’s golden child Jordan Spieth, who will play the last round with his 2015 U.S. Open protagonist Dustin Johnson – both made the cut on the number, at -1.
A duel between Walker and Mickelson, however remote given the near one-hour gap between their tee times, would be a fitting storyline for the final round; after all, it was Mickelson who was the pursuer two years ago when Walker racked up his win at Pebble Beach.