At 24-under, Mickelson has golf world abuzz

With third-round 64 continuing dominant performance at Phoenix Open, Lefty has golf world abuzz.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Phil Mickelson arrived at the Waste Management Phoenix Open on the heels of a minor controversy after comments he made recently about income tax changes in California.

By the end of the first round, that controversy was all but forgotten. After three rounds, Mickelson has captured the golf world's attention entirely with the best 56-hole performance of his career.

With a 7-under 64 in the third round Saturday, Mickelson fell one stroke short of the PGA Tour's 54-hole record and sits at 24-under heading into Sunday, with Brandt Snedeker his closest challenger at 18-under. In his career, Mickelson has converted 21 of 32 54-hole leads (ties included) into wins.

"At this golf course especially, you've got to keep it going, because you'll get passed pretty quickly," Mickelson said after his round. "Sometimes when you get it going and you start thinking about the numbers, it will stop you from pushing forward. That's one of the things I've tried to do this week is just keep pushing."

That approach has Mickelson on the verge of his third Phoenix Open win and his first of the 2013 season. It may not be a major, but it's got the golf world abuzz about nothing but Lefty.

Tiger Woods was the talk of the Tour last Sunday after a win at Torrey Pines — might old Tiger be back? Mickelson's first-round flirtation with a 59 and subsequent 60 squelched that talk for at least a week.

Tour veteran and three-time major champion Vijay Singh admitted Wednesday to using deer antler spray, which contained a substance banned on the Tour, and the next day withdrew from the Phoenix Open, which he has won twice. That might as well be ancient history now.

Mickelson may not sit as high as he once did in the world golf rankings — he's been No. 2 multiple times and is currently No. 22 — but if those rankings were based on popularity, Mickelson would undoubtedly be a perennial top three. It's often the case that as the likes of Woods and Mickelson go, so goes the sport's popularity.

Mickelson's popularity with fans has sustained through his 20-year pro career and clearly isn't waning any time soon. But nowhere is Mickelson, an Arizona State alum, more beloved than here in Arizona.

"He is kind of the first son of Phoenix," Snedeker said. "People love being around him, and he deserves everything he gets because he gives it back to them. He makes them feel like they're a part of the tournament and a part of what he's doing."

Mickelson said: "The way the people treat me here and having gone to ASU and having been a past champ is pretty cool, and I would love to add another victory if possible."

As Mickelson performed Saturday, it was easy to see why he has engrossed the sport with three spectacular rounds. Even after two decades, 40 PGA Tour wins and four major championships, he's putting together perhaps the best performance of his career.

When Mickelson put his second shot in a bunker on the 15th hole Saturday, he promptly chipped to within 7 feet of the hole. And when he missed the fairway badly on the 18th, he again didn't flinch, placing his second shot on the green 15 feet from the hole to set up the birdie that gave him a six-stroke lead. Everything was going his way, most of it by his own doing.

"Phil can give you that feeling (that) no matter what you do — you're not going to catch up just because of the way he plays," Snedeker said. "His short game is so good that even when he does make a mistake, he still can get out of there with par."

Mickelson's highlight came on the famous 16th Saturday, when his tee shot looked like it could roll in for a hole-in-one. The crowd erupted as the shot rolled and could have only been louder had the ball rolled the last two feet.

"It was a pretty good shot," Mickelson deadpanned, inciting laughter.

All eyes will undoubtedly be affixed on Mickelson in the final round as he tries to become the fourth three-time champion at TPC Scottsdale. The buzz would swell considerably with a victory, particularly ahead of next week's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am, which Mickelson won last year.

Mickelson will have to fight off Snedeker and Padraig Harrington, who sits eight strokes back in his first Phoenix Open, in Sunday's final group.

"Phil has obviously got a substantial lead here, and he's won a number of tournaments in the past," Harrington said. "So, you know, he's a good bet in that situation, but I think, for most professional golfers, holding the lead is always going to be one of the toughest things."

Mickelson knows well the challenges that come from playing with a lead, especially on a course that features many opportunities to make up ground.

"I know how good Snedeker is and how hot he can get with a putter," Mickelson said. "He can make birdie from just about anywhere. He's going to make a run tomorrow. I hopefully will be able to keep pace, and that's the first order of business."

As long as Mickelson takes care of business Sunday, protecting and/or building on an impressive lead, he'll have at least one PGA Tour victory in 10 straight seasons — the longest active streak — and will no doubt remain the talk of the Tour.

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