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Mickelson’s slight fade draws the field in tight

Times Staff Writer

Just when you thought there was no way Phil Mickelson could top himself, unless he suddenly decided to parachute from his jet and float down to the first tee, he managed to come up with the unexpected.

Mickelson stuck it in reverse. He bogeyed back-to-back holes with a three-shot lead, let almost everyone carrying a golf club back into the Nissan Open, and still packed a one-shot advantage into his carry-on baggage for his Saturday afternoon commuter flight back home to Rancho Santa Fe.

After his two-under-par 69, Mickelson was semi-apologetic.

“I let it slide a little bit,” he said.

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“I was tied for the lead yesterday, I got a one-shot lead today, so it’s getting better. It wasn’t the day I wanted, but it’s getting better.”

That might be true statistically, but it was a slippery slope at Riviera Country Club, where Mickelson led Padraig Harrington by three shots after 11 holes, but was tied with him after 16. Mickelson was thankful when he edged ahead by getting up and down for a birdie at the 590-yard, par-five 17th, where Harrington missed his own five-foot birdie putt.

Mickelson’s 54-hole total of 200 gets the jump on Harrington, who wasn’t all that pleased with his 70 on a day that reached a tournament-record high of 86 degrees along the barrancas, the kikuyu and the eucalyptus.

“I’m still in there, but we both let a lot of people back in by not going low,” Harrington said.

That number is probably six players, he said, but Mickelson was more generous, estimating it’s between 10 to 15 more players.

And it’s a formidable list, to say the least. Rich Beem, the 2002 PGA Championship winner, is only two shots behind Mickelson after his six-under 65 that included a hole in one at the 14th. Robert Allenby, who won here in 2001, and Charles Howell III, who lost in a playoff here in 2003, are tied for fourth at 10 under 203.

Then there is a trio that should worry anybody with a lead, including Mickelson: former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, three-time major winner Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia -- all just four shots behind. Geoff Ogilvy, the U.S. Open champion, is five shots behind, tied with K.J. Choi.

Furyk, who is working on his fifth driver since cracking the head of his old one in November, birdied the 16th and 17th for a four-under 67, the same as Els. Furyk said it was considerate of Mickelson to stay close to the pack.

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“It definitely shines a ray of hope in a lot of guys’ eyes,” Furyk said. “Coming back helps a lot of people, but he’s going to be tough to catch. He and Paddy are good players and Phil’s been on a roll, obviously.”

Harrington, who had 10 birdies in a first-round 63, had six birdies Friday and only two Saturday.

“That’s one trend I hope that doesn’t continue,” he said.

As far as any ongoing trend, the one that counts is that nobody seems to be able to run away with this tournament. The last time anybody won by more than two shots was 1997, when Nick Faldo beat Craig Stadler by three.

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It’s simply hard to pull away. Last year for instance, Adam Scott was eight shots off the lead when the last round started, shot a 64 and wound up losing to Rory Sabbatini by just one shot. That’s not so hard to fathom, Sabbatini said, because of the nature of Riviera.

“This golf course can take shots away from you as quickly as it gives them,” he said.

That’s what Mickelson discovered, soon after he moved to 15 under and a three-shot lead with a birdie at the 11th.

He missed a four-footer to bogey the 12th and a six-footer to bogey the 13th. Mickelson overshot the green at the par-three 16th, was forced to knock it back onto the green from behind some trees, and had to play for a bogey. He got it, his third in a five-hole stretch, and had a reminder that his short game isn’t as infallible as it has appeared.

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But besides that bumpy patch, Mickelson’s only other problems came from a couple of photographers who bothered him in the early going by taking pictures when he was swinging.

Allenby survived a six-hole playoff and a deluge to win six years ago, taking advantage of a collapse by Davis Love, who blew a three-shot lead going into the final round. So a one-shot advantage isn’t much, Allenby said.

“Every year, there’s always a bunch of guys that have a chance to win the tournament,” he said. “Anyone within five or six shots can win this tournament.

“It’s good that no one runs away with it . . . unless it’s myself.”

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There are a total of nine major championships that have been won by the top-10 players as the fourth round begins today, from Mickelson to Ogilvy, so chances are it’s going to be a competitive arrangement.

Mickelson is eight under on the par-five holes and Harrington is six under, which makes Mickelson believe the path to success at Riviera is to rule the 1st, the 11th, the 17th and, probably, the 315-yard par-four 10th.

“It’s going to be a shootout with a lot of guys,” he said.

That’s usually the way it goes in this territory.

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thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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Major event

The players on the Nissan Open leaderboard at Riviera have won 16 major championships:

*--* 1. Phil Mickelson 2004 Masters 2005 PGA 2006 Masters 3. Rich Beem 2002 PGA T6. Jim Furyk 2003 U.S. Open T6. Ernie Els 1994 U.S. Open 1997 U.S. Open 2002 British Open T9. Geoff Ogilvy 2006 U.S. Open T14. Ben Curtis 2003 British Open T14. Steve Elkington 1995 PGA T19. J.M. Olazabal 1994 Masters 1999 Masters T19. Vijay Singh 1998 PGA 2000 Masters 2004 PGA

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