While all the attention was being cast on Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson was quietly going about his business, not really worrying that he wasn’t part of the early conversation.
He certainly wasn’t quiet Saturday, and they’re all talking about him now after the 41-year-old left-hander and three-time past champion shot 6-under-par 66 to move within a one shot of leader Peter Hanson going into Championship Sunday. They’ll play together at 1:40 p.m. Anniston time today.
“I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters,” Mickelson said. “It’s the greatest thing in professional golf.”
Putting together a back-nine run similar to the one he enjoyed in the middle of the side on Saturday of his 2010 Masters win, Mickelson posted the second-best round of the day. Only Hanson’s 65 was better.
The 34-year-old Swede, playing in only his second Masters, birdied each of the last two holes and posted a 9-under 207 with Mickelson still on the course. Louis Oosthuizen was third at a 209 after a 3-under 69, followed by Bubba Watson (70-210) and Matt Kuchar (70-211).
“This is kind of a new situation to me, being in the spotlight like this and playing in the last group,” Hanson said. “I’ve been on the leaderboard a few times, but I’ve never led in anything like this.”
First-round leader Lee Westwood is among four players tied for sixth at 212. Second round co-leaders Fred Couples and Jason Dufner, the former Auburn player with one of the best scoring averages on Tour before the cut, both blew up, each shooting 75.
Before the tournament began all anyone seemed to be talking about was the two-man battle between McIlroy and Woods. Mickelson said at the time he didn’t mind being under the radar, but early in the proceedings, he hardly was a blip.
He was tied for 55th after Thursday’s opening-round 74 and was 4-over after 10 holes, thanks to a disastrous triple-bogey 7 at the 10th. But he is 12-under since.
Now, he’s one shot off the lead. As for the two pre-tournament favorites, McIlroy is tied for 27th, 10 shots off the lead, and Woods is tied for 38th, 11 shots behind Mickelson.
“I felt at some point I would get hot, kind of like the back nine today,” he said. “I’ll go back to Thursday and the way I fought hard those last eight holes to stay in it as being the critical eight holes to give me a chance on Sunday.”
Mickelson’s back nine was, in his words, “awesome.” After making all pars on the front nine, he broke through with a birdie at 10. He parred 11, birdied the par-3 12th from behind the hole, eagled the par-5 13th after cutting in a 6-iron from 206 yards, left his birdie putt on the lip at 14 and birdied 15. Even he admitted it reminded him a little of 2010.
That year he eagled 13 with his now famous 4-iron from the pine straw through the trees, holed out for eagle on 14 and nearly eagled 15. But he offered a word of caution.
“It’s still Saturday and you’re going to have to go play some really good golf and you’re going to have to have some good things happen on Sunday,” he said. “That’s when it gets exciting.”
There aren’t many things as exciting as watching Mickleson pull off something creative around the green, and the birdie on 15 came courtesy of a vintage kamikaze Phil flop shot after he hit a 5-iron from 235 yards through the green. If he goes on to win his fourth green jacket that may be remembered as the shot of the tournament.
“There was a lot of risk; it wasn’t the safest shot,” he said. “I’ve hit some long irons there over the years and unfortunately that was one of them into a spot that was a very tough upanddown. But I took on a little risk, and that’s a great example of why I put a 64degree wedge in the bag on this golf course. I don’t like to hit the lob shot a lot here. You see me putting from off the green more often than not, but sometimes that was going to be almost an impossible shot to putt along the ground.”
Hanson had a similar shot in the group ahead, but opted for a bump-and-run onto the green and hope to leave an uphill putt coming back.
“I never saw that high flop shot from there,” he said. “Phil is so great with that 64 degree. … He’s just amazing with the wedges and the way he plays those shots. He has a few shots around the green that I’m not even close to. I just have to play my game and work around this golf course the absolute best I can.”
Interestingly, Mickelson did all his work while Hanson was doing some electric work of his own in the group in front of him.
Hanson played the back in 31 and admitted feeling the heat from Mickelson to keep it going. He birdied 12, 14, 15, 17 and 18, knocking a 6-iron stiff from 206 yards.
“The last four or five holes everything seemed to be going right,” Hanson said. “It feels like you just have to make a good swing, make a good stroke and the ball seemed to just find the hole some way.
“It’s just so nice to get into that -- people call it the zone or that peak performance, and I think I was pretty close to that today.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.