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Mickelson roars into contention as 30 on back nine puts him one stroke behind Hanson

By Gary D’Amato, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Early Thursday morning, nearly 61/2 hours before he teed off in the first round of the 76th Masters, Phil Mickelson stood behind the first tee at Augusta National and watched honorary starters Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit ceremonial tee shots.

That’s how much Mickelson loves this place.

He embraces everything about it — the history, the tradition, the Southern charm draped over an undercurrent of electric tension. Above all else, he loves the unique challenges of a golf course on which the difference between birdies and bogeys often is not much wider than a razor’s edge.

It brings out Mickelson’s best.

And on Saturday, he could not have been much better.

Mickelson, 41, shot a 30 on the back nine with a display of brilliant shot-making and deft putting to finish with a bogey-free, 6-under-par 66. At the end of a magical day, he trailed leader Peter Hanson of Sweden by one shot going into the final round.

Hanson was equally sensational, firing a 65, the low round of the tournament, to complete 54 holes in 9-under 207.

Mickelson and Hanson played together in the first two rounds and they’ll be together again as the final twosome Sunday. They are scheduled to tee off at 1:40 p.m. It is noteworthy that Mickelson has won all three of his Masters titles, and all four of his majors, from the final pairing.

In fact, the Masters champion has come out of the final Sunday pairing 19 out of the last 21 years, with Zach Johnson (2007) and Charl Schwartzel (2011) the exceptions.

“I love it here, and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters,” Mickelson said. “It’s the greatest thing in professional golf.”

Hanson, who turns 35 on Tuesday, is trying to become the first major champion from Sweden. A four-time winner on the European Tour, he missed the cut in his Masters debut last year and has just one top-10 finish in 18 major championship appearances.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “It’s a new situation for me. I’ve been up on the leader board a few times, but I’ve never led in anything like this.”

Mickelson, on the other hand, relishes Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon.

“As great and as fun a round as this was, it just makes it possible to have something really special tomorrow,” he said. “I still have to go out and do it. I still have to play some great golf on a tough golf course with some tough pin placements.”

Mickelson was 4 over after the first 10 holes Thursday and said his ability to salvage a 74 was as important as his 66 on moving day. He has played the last 44 holes in 12 under.

“Getting a couple shots back on Thursday evening is what put me in position to shoot a low round and move up the leader board,” he said. “I’ll go back to Thursday and the way I fought hard those last eight holes to stay in it as being the critical eight holes to give me a chance on Sunday.”

Mickelson trails Hanson by one shot but is just one in front of South African Louis Oosthuizen, who bogeyed the 18th hole to shoot a 69 and finish at 7-under 209. Bubba Watson (70) is another shot back at 210.

Second-round co-leaders Fred Couples and Jason Dufner both shot 75s to fall back into the pack. They’ll play together again Sunday, but with eight twosomes behind them and little chance to win.

Mickelson made nine consecutive pars Saturday but then went crazy on the back nine with birdies on Nos. 10 and 12, an eagle on the par-5 13th and two more birdies on Nos. 15 and 18.

His birdie on the par-5 15th was spectacular because of the degree of difficulty on Mickelson’s third shot, a full swing with his 64-degree lob wedge off a tight lie from just behind the green that sent the ball straight up into the air. It landed on the green like a butterfly with sore feet.

Perhaps no other golfer in the world would trust himself to hit a big flop in that situation. In the CBS booth, the normally loquacious David Feherty was rendered nearly speechless by the tightrope-without-a-net shot.

“There was a lot of risk,” Mickelson said with a crooked grin, an acknowledgment that, yes, he loved the challenge. “It wasn’t the safest shot and that’s not where I want to be. That pin position is by far the toughest pin position for me to make a four on that hole.

“But I took on a little risk and that’s a great example of why I put a 64-degree wedge in the bag on this golf course. It allows me to slide underneath it off tight lies and pop the ball up in a situation like that.”

On the 18th, Mickelson hit a 3-wood off the tee and a 7-iron from 198 yards onto the green, then rolled in the putt to become the first player to birdie the hole in each of the first three rounds in 13 years.

Since those first 10 holes Thursday, Mickelson’s confidence has grown palpably, and he’s been emboldened by galleries that adore him. His putter has carried him; he leads the field with 77 putts over 54 holes, two fewer than Hanson.

“It’s been so good, probably the best of my career,” Mickelson said of his putting. “I worked hard in the off-season and made a real commitment to what I’m doing. All year it’s been great, but this week on these greens, where I know the breaks and they roll so true, it’s been really good.”

Eighteen players are within six shots of the lead going into the final round, but all eyes will be on Mickelson.

“I just feel really confident in the way I’ve been playing and the way I’ve been putting and in this setting and on this golf course,” he said.

That just about covers it.

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