The up, down and merry-go-round game that Phil Mickelson put on display Friday at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge might have been stressful for most golfers, but not for the talented left-hander, who not only is used to walking a high wire without a net, but also enjoys the challenges associated with it.
Mickelson, the three-time major champion, cobbled together a 5-under-par 67 on the rain-softened Championship Course and put himself smack into contention at 6-under 138 heading into the final two rounds of the 32nd edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
“I find that an interesting question, because there's some legitimacy to it,” said Mickelson, the No. 3 player in the world, when asked about the nervy round that included two big bogey-saving putts and a hole-out for an eagle on the par-4 eighth hole. “I have a tendency to have up‑and‑down rounds like that. But it's fun. I mean, I enjoy trying to create shots and hit shots and take on some of these pins and make birdies, and, unfortunately, I tend to make a few mistakes at times, as well.”
That may be so, but he managed to erase them with some clutch putting combined with his usual barrage of birdies. Lefty, who won the 1997 Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, converted his bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6 after driving into the water hazard at each. The distances were 11 and 17 feet, respectively, but the psychological boost went much farther.
“You could say every shot is equal, and that’s true, but when you make a double, it’s kind of a devastating feeling, because now you have multiple holes to make it up; whereas if you just make one bogey, everybody is going to make bogeys. It happens. It's not that big of a deal,” Mickelson said. “Those putts are critical. Those bogey putts were every bit as important as some of the other stuff.”
That other stuff included a chunked hybrid second shot into the par-5 16th green that ended up short of the water hazard. Mickelson, taking advantage of the lucky break, pitched the ball to 4 feet and made a birdie. Then there was No. 8, his second-last hole of the day, where he hit pitching wedge from 134 yards that landed about eight feet short of the hole and rolled in for eagle.
“This is fun for me,” said Mickelson, who said his Friday round was his best with the putter this year. No mystery there; he only needed 23 putts. “I haven't really been in contention this year. I haven't really had my game where I wanted it to be. But I could tell heading into this week that it was getting there, and I was very confident heading into these two rounds. So I'm excited about the weekend and the possibilities of getting in contention.”
A lot of that confidence emanated from a casual round he enjoyed Monday at The Plantation, a private course in Palm Springs, Florida, where he shot a 58. Yes, it was his career low and the course record.
“I’m looking forward to the weekend,” the popular left-hander said. “I think for me it's important to get into contention and get that feel and that nervousness of being in one of the last few groups, having a chance to win the golf tournament, looking at the leaderboard, being able to focus on your own game, all of those things combined.”
By Dave Shedloski