Standing on the fourth tee during Saturday’s third round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Phil Mickelson’s score was on a southward trend and his chances for victory seemed as dull as the cloudy skies.
He had bogeyed the second at soggy TPC Southwind, failed to make birdie on the par-5 third and stood nine shots out of the lead. Another poor week seemed to be at hand – he’d missed five cuts in 10 starts this year, notched just two top-3s, and rolled into Memphis, Tennessee, coming off ties for 58th and 54th in the Dublin Double at Muirfield Village in Ohio.
That’s when the forever optimistic Mickelson turned to his brother and caddie, Tim, and instead of unloading a mouthful of frustration, he teed up a message overflowing of positivity.
“This is so much fun,” Mickelson said he told his brother. “Like I’m having so much fun because I can feel my game turn around, I’m starting to play well again, I’m starting to putt well and starting to drive the ball well and it just feels good and I’m having fun. I just think the results are going to start to slowly come back.
“It’s been really fun for me to come out and play and start to play well.”
The results – at least for 18 holes – came back quickly as Mickelson turned in a 4-under-par 66 to move to 7 under through 54 holes and within five shots of leader Brendon Todd heading into Sunday’s final round. The first page of the leaderboard is loaded with the likes of Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen and Todd, who has won twice this season, but Mickelson has placed himself within range of his 45th PGA Tour title.
“Well, I’m going to have to shoot something really low, probably 63, 64 to have a realistic chance,” Mickelson said. “It’s certainly out there, I’ve shot it before, but a good test of golf. I mean, it’s a really good golf course. It punishes any mis‑hit off the tee. When you’re trying to hit these greens that are so small out of the rough, it’s really tough. Fortunately, I’ve been driving the ball pretty well and been able to get aggressive with my irons.”
Mickelson has been feeling pretty good since he arrived in Memphis. He loves the challenge of TPC Southwind and said it’s one of the most underrated courses on the PGA Tour. His track record is a source of confidence, too – although he’s never won here, he has two runner-up finishes and six top-25 finishes in eight starts. And after posting 67-70 the first two rounds, Mickelson took to Twitter and posted a photo of himself walking tall that was accompanied by a caption that read, “Mood heading into the weekend,” and a smiley-face emoji in sunglasses.
“I saw the picture and just thought why not,” he said.
And then he backed up the tweet.
“I hit a lot of good shots, made a lot of good putts and played really well,” he said. “You can always look back and you feel like you let a couple go. I wish I would have finished the round off a little better. I wish I had birdied 16 and not bogeyed 17. Those two shots coming down, you’ve really got to close the round out a little better than I did today. But I hit a lot of good shots in the heart of the round, made seven birdies and really had a good day.”
The 50-year-old Mickelson could have been enjoying some good days in Michigan this week if he’d decided to make his debut on the PGA Tour Champions in the Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills outside of Flint.
He would have played there if he hadn’t been eligible for this week’s WGC. He wanted to get sharp ahead of next week’s PGA Championship, the first major of the year. And he’d like to make a deep run in the FedEx Cup Playoffs when they start in three weeks. And then the U.S. Open next month and the Masters in November.
“It’s really exciting that we’re going to be able to compete in three majors,” Mickelson said. “It’s exciting that I’m starting to play well as we head into them and exciting that golf has been able to do this in a safe environment.”