PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — You know the line, that in golf it ain’t how, it’s how many, that what matters is the score and not how you got it. Except the way Phil Mickelson plays golf.
He turns bogies into pars, pars into birdies and with one shot Saturday turned the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am upside down and inside out.
Not that Mickelson was impressed.
We’ve been down this fairway and out of those bunkers before, Mickelson showing his brilliance and his arrogance — well, self-confidence sounds nicer, doesn’t it?
After 54 holes of the PGA Tour’s favorite mix of celebrities (yes, seven NFL quarterbacks and as always Bill Murray), nature (yes those all-too-cute sea otters on their backs in the bay off the 18th) and competition, Mickelson is a shot out the lead.
Nick Taylor, a Canadian, is ahead, but the probability is that beyond his family and those in the golf program at the University of Washington, for which Taylor played a few years ago, few are that interested.
He once was the No. 1 amateur in the world rankings and did win a Tour event, the Sanderson Farms Open in 2014. But as we are aware, golf — along with really every other sport — is dependent on names as much as much as games. And Phil, with his five majors, with his cockiness and reputation, has the name and the game.
He had everyone in awe. Other than, ho-hum, his own self. “It seemed,” conceded Mickelson, “like my short game was pretty good today.”
Good enough for a 5-under-par 67 at Pebble. That left him at 16-under-par 199 for 54 holes, a stroke behind Taylor, who shot 69 at Spyglass Hill for 198. In third is Jason Day, who had a 70 at Spyglass for 201.
Mickelson, “Lefty,” was teamed with another Lefty, his amateur partner, the retired 49ers quarterback Steve Young. And just as Young impressed us on that tackle-breaking, staggering, tumble-into-the-end zone run against the Vikings in 1987, so too was Young was impressed by the Mickelson routine.
“It was magical,” Young was heard to say. It was typical, Mickelson acolytes would insist. Phil was on the cover of Golf Digest back in his college days at Arizona State for such accomplishments as hitting balls over his back and into the cup.
The big one Saturday was in the usual forward direction and did not go into the hole, but oh my. He was in the bunker at 7, the landmark hole at Pebble, a tiny (105-yard) par-3 that pokes into Carmel Bay.
Mickelson’s tee shot buried in a bunker behind the green. That set up the impossible. But not for Phil.
“Yeah,” said Mickelson about the shot, “it’s No. 2 on my all-time greatest bunker shots. So yeah, I made one in the final round at the Memorial, Muirfield Village, the old 16th hole, under the lip, plugged, and I holed that one.
“This one didn’t go in, but it was the second best I’ve ever hit. I was just trying not to make 5. I was trying to get on the green and just make a 4, give myself a putt at a par. But it came out great.”
And trailing only by the one shot, Mickelson, who had not played well in the early events this winter, has a perfect opportunity to win this event for the second straight year and sixth time overall.
Not that Phil has it wrapped up — or that Nick Taylor doesn’t believe he will win. The leaders will be paired together in the final group, along with their amateur partners, Young and with Taylor, Jerry Tarde, the longtime editor of Golf Digest.
“It’s going to be a new experience,” said Taylor of playing for the first time against Mickelson and in effect against the gallery. “But I’m not really trying to pay attention to what he’s doing. Obviously if he makes a putt or a great shot the crowd’s going to go wild.”
He made them Saturday. Phil hit only nine fairways and nine greens, but he still was a factor — the factor.
“I scored well,” said Mickelson, “on a day that wasn’t easy.”
Which is what winners often do, and the reason they win. Phil knows all about that.