Someone forgot to tell Phil Mickelson that the 76th Masters is supposed to be a showdown between a resurgent Tiger Woods and his heir apparent Rory McIlroy.
As Woods and McIlroy faltered Saturday, ending their hopes of contending on Sunday, three-time champion Mickelson put himself in line for a fourth title with a six-under-par 66 that produced the biggest roars of an up-till-then quiet week at Augusta National.
After three rounds, Mickelson was in second place just one stroke behind leader Peter Hanson.
Lefty opened the tournament Thursday with 74 (he was four over after 10 holes) and seemed like he’d be a bystander this week, but he crept back into the picture Friday with a 68 and then shot toward the summit on a warm late Saturday afternoon with a back-side 30, which tied his lowest career score for either of the nines.
The height of his day was an eagle on the 13th hole, which set off a tumultuous roar among the patrons. Mickelson is now 63 under on the hole nicknamed Azalea in 77 career rounds, making it his best hole at Augusta in relation to par.
“It was the most incredible, beautiful day here at Augusta,” Mickelson said. “Perfect for scoring opportunities. Very little wind, soft greens, and pins that you could get to.”
But he’ll need an equally captivating round Sunday to slip on the green jacket for the fourth time.
During a day of jockeying on the leaderboard reminiscent of the final round last year, when at least eight players sniffed the lead on the back nine, many others made significant climbs as well.
Nine players are within five shots of the lead.
No one did better Saturday than Hanson, a European Tour regular from Sweden who put up the low round of the tournament so far – a seven-under 65.
“I have to say [I’m]very surprised,” said Hanson, who could become the first male Swede to win a major golf championship. “I think this golf course is unbelievably challenging. Like I said, to shoot 65 around, I’ve been watching this tournament since I was a young kid, and you know, seeing Freddie Couples and the guys go and shot 30 and 31 on the back nine is something you just dream about.”
Hanson, who shot 31 Saturday on the back, will be paired Sunday with Mickelson, reprising their match at the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales. Mickelson won that showdown 3 and 2.
They also played together this week in the opening two rounds. Hanson said Mickelson's presence in those rounds inspired him and made him focus more.
They can take confidence in knowing that 18 of the past 20 Masters champions have come from the final pairing on Sunday.
“ I just feel really confident in the way I've been playing and the way I've been putting and in this setting on this golf course,” Mickelson said. “I love it here and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters. It's the greatest thing in professional golf.”
But if they slide, a host of proven players lurk.
Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner, reached eight under with a birdie on the 17th hole, tying Mickelson in second, but gave a shot back on the last hole with a sloppy boggey to slip into third. He shot 69.
Bubba Watson held fourth place at six under and Matt Kuchar was a shot behind in fifth. Both shot 70.
Hunter Mahan, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson and first-round leader Lee Westwood shared sixth place at four under.
While eight of the top nine men broke par (Westwood shot 72), many other big names didn’t enjoy the same prosperity of red numbers.
Woods shot 72 and remained in the middle of the pack, tied for 38th place at three over. His fifth green jacket, and 15th major title, is out of reach.
McIlroy, who shared top billing with Woods heading into the tournament, had a calamitous day that revived memories of his meltdown last year during the final round. He shot 77 after a front-nine 42.
Playing partner Sergio Garcia likewise retreated, shooting 75 to fall into a tie for 19th place.
Playing their way out of the tournament, they both needed a hug – so they did with self-deprecation on the 12th hole after both making a rare birdie.
“If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at,” McIlroy said.
Third-round co-leaders Jason Dufner and sentimental favourite Couples both shot 75 to join a group of six others tied for 11th spot.
FINAL ROUND TEE TIMES (all times ET)
9:20 a.m. - a-Kelly Kraft, Stewart Cink
9:30 - Edoardo Molinari, Robert Karlsson
9:40 - Trevor Immelman, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano
9:50 - Bo Van Pelt, Scott Verplank
10:00 - Thomas Bjorn, Luke Donald
10:10 - Bill Haas, a-Patrick Cantlay
10:20 - Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer
10:30 - David Toms, Martin Laird
10:40 - Anders Hansen, Ross Fisher
10:50 - Rickie Fowler. Keegan Bradley
11:00 - Angel Cabrera, Steve Stricker
11:20 - Zach Johnson, Aaron Baddeley
11:30 - Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods
11:40 - Adam Scott, Y. E. Yang
11:50 - Kevin Chappell, Kevin Na
12:00 p.m. - Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell
12:10 - a-Hideki Matsuyama, Miguel Angel Jimenez
12:20 - Scott Stallings, Geoff Ogilvy
12:30 - Justin Rose, Charles Howell III
12:40 - Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson
12:50 - Jim Furyk, Jonathan Byrd
1:10 - Brandt Snedeker, Sang-Moon Bae
1:20 - Jason Dufner, Fred Couples
1:30 - Nick Watney, Ben Crane
1:40 - Fredrik Jacobson, Sean O'Hair
1:50 - Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter
2:00 - Lee Westwood, Paul Lawrie
2:10 - Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson
2:20 - Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan
2:30 - Louis Oosthuizen, Bubba Watson
2:40 - Peter Hanson, Phil Mickelson