Sports

Phil Mickelson blazes into Pebble Beach lead with a 66

Phil Mickelson skipped the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last year for his kids' vacation week and it must have felt like he stood up an old friend on a dinner date.

Pebble and Mickelson have been so good for each other, the San Diegan notching four of his 42 PGA Tour victories on the Monterey Peninsula. It is a week filled with small, fun traditions and family reminiscing for Mickelson, whose maternal grandfather, Al Santos, served as one of the Pebble Beach Golf Links' first caddies in 1919.

The place clearly is restorative to Mickelson's golf spirit and that has become the case again this week.

Seeking a victory to end a 2 1/2-year drought, Mickelson again produced magic at Pebble on Saturday, even while insisting his game isn't nearly as sharp as it could be. He chipped in for birdie on the 18th hole — his ninth of the day — and didn't make a bogey in shooting a six-under-par 66 to seize a two-shot lead over Hiroshi Iwata, who had a 69 at Spyglass Hill.

Standing at 16 under, Mickelson holds his first 54-hole lead since the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, where he ultimately lost by two to Justin Rose. As a solo leader, he's been a strong closer, converting 81% of those opportunities into victories.

It doesn't hurt Mickelson's chances that the five players closest to him on the board have never won at Pebble Beach and have a combined three PGA Tour victories. Trailing by three are Freddie Jacobsen (68, Monterey Peninsula CC) and Sung Kang (70, Pebble), and four back are Roberto Castro (67, MPCC) and Jonas Blixt (67, Spyglass).

Mickelson's last triumph at Pebble is among his greatest victories, majors or otherwise. Playing alongside Tiger Woods in the final round in 2012, Mickelson fired a 64 and routed his longtime rival by nine shots.

That was Mickelson's 40th win, but the victories have since been harder to come by, with the 45-year-old's last coming in unexpected fashion in the 2013 British Open.

"I don't want to jump ahead and start thinking about the result, but I feel like I've been playing really well this year," Mickelson said. "And although I didn't strike it today the way I want to, I'm going to hopefully get that dialed in for tomorrow's round."

After working on significant swing changes in the off-season with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based instructor Andrew Getson, Mickelson has been saying he's getting closer to where he wants to be. In the last three weeks, he sandwiched a tie for third in Palm Desert and a tie for 11th in Phoenix around a missed cut at Torrey Pines.

Yet Mickelson said he didn't feel comfortable Saturday and made a call to Getson to fly into Pebble Beach so they could get in some work before the final round.

That speaks volumes about how badly Mickelson wants to win here again. If he was mired in 15th place, his teacher probably wouldn't have been summoned to class.

"The score was great, but the ball striking wasn't indicative of how I've been hitting it," Mickelson said. "It's been a while since I've been in contention, and it would mean a lot to me to be able to play a good final round."

Despite no bogeys, Mickelson had to fight for his 66. He missed five of the 18 greens, but twice saved par from the sand, and he hit another shot from a bunker at No. 3 that CBS commentator Nick Faldo thought Mickelson shanked.

Mickelson disputed that, explaining he punched sideways from an awkward lie. Then he made an impressive up-and-down from 40 yards, knocking a wedge to four feet and draining the putt.

With a two-over 74 at Pebble Beach, world No. 1 Jordan Spieth fell 15 shots off the lead. No. 3 Jason Day (68, Pebble) moved into a three-way tie for eighth.

The day's best round of 63 was recorded at Pebble Beach by Jimmy Walker, who made two eagles in a five-hole stretch and six birdies to get into a tie for 11th.

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 14, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Mickelson could end drought - He takes a two-shot lead at Pebble Beach, and his closest pursuers have little history of winning." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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