Phil Mickelson may not be favourite to become the oldest major winner in history at the 103rd US PGA Championship on Sunday evening, but age won't affect the outcome. Neither will ability. Nor desire. But mindset might.
That much was evident as he produced an admirable level of commitment to the cause on Saturday afternoon at Kiawah Island's punishing Ocean Course that his younger self would have struggled to stick with.
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A month before turning 51, Lefty displayed all his powers of recovery to carry a one-shot lead over fellow American Brooks Koepka – winner of the event in 2018 and 2019 – into the final day after an epic battle across the sea and sand of Pete Dye's devilishly designed, windswept and interesting South Carolina track.
Mickelson is bidding to become the oldest major winner of all time – usurping Julius Boros, who was 48 when he lifted the 1968 US PGA title in Texas – and did his chances of fresh golf immortality no harm with an impressive round of 70 achieved despite seeing a five-shot lead disappear midway through his third round on a course where no player is ever truly safe.
"I'm having a lot of fun. I'm really enjoying it. This has been a fun challenge and I'm looking forward to tomorrow," said the five-times major winner.
I feel good about my game. I let my mind lapse on a couple of swings. I just need to be a little bit sharper on every single shot.
"Not that I'm disappointed with two under, but it's not what it should have been. I'm playing a lot better than the score is showing and I think if I can just stay sharp tomorrow, I'll post a score that better reflects how I'm actually playing.
"I'm focused on a few things that I need to work on before tomorrow's round, and I'm not really dwelling back on what took place today. I just know I'm having a lot of fun and I'm very appreciative of the way the people have been supportive."
Lefty looked back to his very best on the front nine as he slipped home four birdies to reach the turn in 32, four strokes clear of Koepka, playing partner Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama.
Having started the day alongside Oosthuizen on five under, Mickelson looked as calm as the more sedate conditions adorning the normally gusting Kiawah with another birdie on the 10th hole stretching his advantage to an astonishing five strokes.
Yet the feeling that the world number 115 Mickelson – who plays more golf with his own swinging generation on the lucrative Champions Tour this weather – was going to navigate the next eight holes in similar luxury is never reality when confronted by a notorious closing five-hole stretch that provides a form of golfing purgatory.
His mini-downfall began when he missed an obvious birdie opportunity at the par-5 11th from short of the green in two to move six clear before bogey at 12 and an awful snap hooked tee shot into water on 13 saw him give three strokes back to the course in rapidly falling from 10 under to seven under. It was back to basics from then on in due to two bad swings.
Without a PGA tournament win since February 2019 and any sustained level of consistency on the main tour, he could easily have lamented his ill fortune, but instead dug deeply into his reserves to finish the final five holes in par, scrambling superbly well, to move from five under to seven under for the tournament and the outright lead.
He narrowly missed birdie putts on 14 and 17, but managed to get up and down from the back of the 18th green moments after Koepka had three-putted from nearer the dance floor in dropping back to six under with both men signing for 70s after an epic few hours.
It could yet be a telling few moments when the final scene is played out on Sunday. Or it might not mean anything in the final narrative. On a course like Kiawah, it is difficult to work out what the story is until the final shots are played.
2010 Open champion Oosthuizen suffered a crisis of confidence on the greens to finish his day with a 72, two strokes off the lead, but remains in contention for his first victory in America with the chasers still well and truly alive. US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau is five behind on two under after a 71.
"Phil hit two bad tee shots and cost him three shots. Other than that he played beautifully," said Oosthuizen.
"He putted well. He drove it unbelievably long and straight. I think we all got lucky that he came backwards into the field."
Keopka will go out with Mickelson, almost 20 years his senior, in the final group at 7.30pm (BST) as 6/4 favourite with Lefty priced at 3/1, but such odds mean little.
Nobody expected Mickelson to travel so far in such a short of space of time with his driving, strategy and game management at times a joy to behold.
"I can see what he's doing, and everybody else is in front of me, so I'll have a good idea on the leaderboard what's going on," said four-times major champion Koepka, who is remarkably still recovering from knee surgery in March.
"Simple. If I strike it anything like I did the last three days, I'll have a chance."
When and where to strike is a more pertinent question. With the wind expected to blow harder on Sunday, those closing five holes are likely to deliver one final brutal twist. Mickelson's major task is to ensure he is still in the mix by that stage.
US PGA Championship third round leaderboard
- -7 Mickelson
- -6 Koepka
- -5 Oosthuizen
- -4 Streelman
- -3 Bezuidenhout, Grace
- -2 DeChambeau, Niemann, Woodland
SUNDAY'S FOURTH-ROUND TEE TIMES (LOCAL TIME, BST +5 HOURS)
- 7:30 a.m. -- Brian Gay
- 7:40 a.m. -- Rasmus Hojgaard, Garrick Higgo
- 7:50 a.m. -- Lucas Herbert, Brendan Steele
- 8 a.m. -- Henrik Stenson, Byeong Hun An
- 8:10 a.m. -- Adam Hadwin, Brad Marek
- 8:20 a.m. -- Matt Wallace, Harris English
- 8:30 a.m. -- Robert Streb, Cam Davis
- 8:40 a.m. -- Bubba Watson, Tom Hoge
- 8:50 a.m. -- Jimmy Walker, Abraham Ancer
- 9 a.m. -- Russell Henley, Daniel Berger
- 9:10 a.m. -- Dean Burmester, Matt Jones
- 9:20 a.m. -- Sam Horsfield, Danny Willett
- 9:30 a.m. -- Tom Lewis, Chan Kim
- 9:40 a.m. -- Rory McIlroy, Stewart Cink
- 9:50 a.m. -- Jason Day, Wyndham Clark
- 10:10 a.m. -- Denny McCarthy, Emiliano Grillo
- 10:20 a.m. -- Justin Rose, Lee Westwood
- 10:30 a.m. -- Jason Scrivener, Robert MacIntyre
- 10:40 a.m. -- Harold Varner III, Aaron Wise
- 10:50 a.m. -- Daniel van Tonder, Viktor Hovland
- 11 a.m. -- Tyrrell Hatton, Collin Morikawa
- 11:10 a.m. -- Talor Gooch, Jon Rahm
- 11:20 a.m. -- Cameron Smith, Alex Noren
- 11:30 a.m. -- Patrick Reed, Carlos Ortiz
- 11:40 a.m. -- Webb Simpson, Ben Cook
- 11:50 a.m. -- Martin Laird, Hideki Matsuyama
- 12 noon -- Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington
- 12:10 p.m. -- Will Zalatoris, Ian Poulter
- 12:20 p.m. -- Steve Stricker, Scottie Scheffler
- 12:30 p.m. -- Billy Horschel, Joel Dahmen
- 12:40 p.m. -- Harry Higgs, Richy Werenski
- 12:50 p.m. -- Charley Hoffman, Jason Kokrak
- 1 p.m. -- Keegan Bradley, Matt Fitzpatrick England
- 1:10 p.m. -- Tony Finau, Patrick Cantlay
- 1:20 p.m. -- Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler
- 1:40 p.m. -- Sungjae Im, Corey Conners
- 1:50 p.m. -- Gary Woodland, Paul Casey
- 2 p.m. -- Bryson DeChambeau, Joaquin Niemann
- 2:10 p.m. -- Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Branden Grace
- 2:20 p.m. -- Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Streelman
- 2:30 p.m. -- Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka
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