SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Phil Mickelson drew the loudest cheers from the biggest crowd in golf history Saturday at the Phoenix Open.
Mickelson nearly aced the par-3 16th, hitting a 9-iron to a foot to set up a birdie on the rowdy stadium hole packed with nearly 20,000 screaming fans.
“What’s funny about that is 172 yards is a very tough 9-iron for me to get there, but I immediately take 5 yards off and in my head I had 167,” Mickelson said. “The reason is you always have a little bit of adrenaline here, and the ball goes a little bit longer on 16.
“I played for a 167-yard shot and tried to hit just a comfortable or stock 9-iron, and the ball ended up flying that far and released to the hole. Having played this course and that hole over the years and knowing what your body does and how to adjust to it has helped me, and certainly it did today.”
Estimated at 179,022, the third-round crowd broke the record of 173,210 set last year, also on a Saturday at fan-friendly TPC Scottsdale. The event has drawn 467,030 fans for the week and is in position to break the mark of 538,356 set in 2008.
Mickelson birdied the final four holes and five of the last six for a 7-under-par 64 and a six-stroke lead over Brandt Snedeker.
The 42-year-old former Arizona State star has led after each round, opening with a 60 and shooting a 65 on Friday. He fell a stroke short of the tour record for the first 54 holes, and matched the tournament mark set by Mark Calcavecchia in 2001.
Making his 24th appearance in the event that he won in 1996 and 2005, Mickelson is trying to complete his third wire-to-wire victory and first since the 2006 BellSouth Classic – a 13-stroke blowout the week before the second of his three Masters victories.
“To me, the wire-to-wire isn’t that important except for now I’m three rounds and the fourth one is kind of the more important one,” Mickelson said.
“It would be an important thing because it’s meant so much to me over my career having won this tournament, coming back as a past champion, and winning here in the town that has meant so much to me, to (wife) Amy and I, where we met, had our first two kids, went to college. It’s a special place.”
He’s in position to match the tournament record of three victories set by Arnold Palmer and matched by Gene Littler and Calcavecchia. Mickelson won the last of his 40 PGA Tour titles 51 weeks ago at Pebble Beach.
The left-hander played the first 12 holes in 2 under, making a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-4 first and a 25-footer on the par-4 fifth. He got up and down from greenside bunkers for birdies on the par-5 13th and 15th holes, followed with the tap-in on 16, then chipped to 2 feet on the 337-yard 17th.
“My short game is what gave me that momentum,” Mickelson said. “The bunker shots I hit on 13 and 15 were really good as well as the chip on 17.”
A day after making a double-bogey 6 on the 18th when he hit a 3-wood drive into the water on the left, Mickelson blasted driver over the water and hit close to the grandstand. He got a free drop, hit to 15 feet and holed the putt.
“I took a little different strategy after yesterday,” Mickelson said.
Snedeker had a 65 to reach 18 under. He tied for second Monday at Torrey Pines, four strokes behind Tiger Woods in the fog-delayed event.
“Phil is playing pretty unbelievable,” Snedeker said. “I will have to go at some pins and make some putts early and be more aggressive than I probably normally would be.”
Padraig Harrington and Ryan Moore were tied for third at 16 under. Harrington, making his first appearance in the event, shot a 63, and Moore had a 65.
Harrington is winless on the PGA Tour since sweeping the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008, and hasn’t won anywhere since the Asian Tour’s 2010 Johor Open.
“I feel like I’m in a good place with the game,” Harrington said.
On the 16th, the 41-year-old Irishman kicked footballs — official Super Bowl models provided by Wilson, also his equipment manufacturer — into the crowd. He kicked the first ball field-goal style, and then punted the rest as he made his way to the green.
“I did not want to screw up the first one along the ground, for sure,” Harrington said. “I did want to get it airborne a little bit of distance. I found when I punted it, the first three or four, I hooked them quite a bit, and then the last one, I actually made sweet contact and kicked it over the stand, actually cleared the whole thing.”
Drawing “Ole! Ole!” chants from the crowd, Harrington ran his 15-foot birdie putt 4 feet past and made the comebacker for par.
“The adrenaline is pumping over those last three, four holes,” Harrington said. “Very exciting, indeed.”
DIVOTS: Mickelson also led wire-to-wire in 2005 at Pebble Beach. He has five victories in Arizona, one short of Johnny Miller’s tour record. ... Bill Haas, four strokes behind Mickelson at the start of the round, had a 70 to drop 10 shots back. Keegan Bradley, playing alongside Mickelson and Haas in the final group, had a 73 to fall to 10 under. ... Defending champion Kyle Stanley was 3 over after a 74.