Mickelson confident, Bradley excited for Sunday's finish

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February 18, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Ample autographs, as always, had been signed and those pesky television and print reporters satisfied.

So Phil Mickelson was finally able to head to the range at Riviera Country Club, retiring to the more secluded area behind the hedge on the right side to escape the youth clinic being held after the third round of the Northern Trust Open was complete.

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He'd already talked with his swing guru, Butch Harmon. Texted, too. So there, as the shadows settled over Hogan's Alley, Mickelson knew exactly what to do, spending another 45 minutes under the watchful eye of his caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, to iron out the kinks that had developed between the hardwoods and eucalyptus trees earlier Saturday afternoon.

In the interview room before the practice session began, Mickelson had called his 70 a "great round." That's because even though he wasn't hitting on all cylinders, sending the occasional shot caroming off branches and depositing another in the hem of a fan's shorts, Mickelson was still atop the leaderboard for the third straight day, albeit sharing the spotlight with his buddy Keegan Bradley at 7 under.

"Usually when I win I'll have two good rounds and I'll have two rounds that aren't so great that I've got to keep somewhere in it to give myself a chance," Mickelson explained. "Yesterday and today I didn't play the best. I wasn't far off. I hit some good shots at times that didn't quite turn out, but I was playing very defensive all day just trying to make pars. ...

"I'll go hit some balls and get it turned around for tomorrow because today was a big day. If I didn't fight hard and make pars from some of the places I was at, then I'd be trying to play catch-up to a lot of guys."

Instead, Mickelson is the hunted again as he attempts to win in consecutive weeks for the fourth time in his career. Yes, he's tied with Bradley, an enthusiastic and energetic PGA TOUR sophomore who already has a major championship on his resume, but Mickelson remains the standard by which Sunday's final round at historic Riviera will be measured.

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And to hear his closest competitors talk, they wouldn't have it any other way.

"Any time you play with Phil means you're playing pretty well," said Bradley, who joins Mickelson and Bryce Molder in Sunday's final group.

"I was hoping to birdie the last to get with him tomorrow," acknowledged Pat Perez, who instead finds himself in the penultimate grouping after playing with Mickelson on Saturday in a round he called "awesome" despite the fact that he didn't hear "one person yell for me."

The riveting 64 Mickelson shot last Sunday to come from six shots back at Pebble Beach was nothing short of brilliant, three strokes lower than anyone else in the field and 11 better than his playing partner that day, none other than Tiger Woods. A 41st win for the future World Golf Hall of Famer -- Mickelson's induction is in May -- won't come easy, though, and he acknowledged the expectations are high.

"I feel a lot better going into this week because I had not won in a while until last week," Mickelson said. "After last week's final round where I played so well, it gives me a lot of confidence. It takes a little bit of pressure off, having already won. So I certainly feel better. But tomorrow is a big day for me. I've led ... all the way, and I would like to do it to the finish. I love this golf course."

So does Bradley, even though Saturday was just his fifth round at Riviera and he doesn't have two wins at Hogan's Alley like Mickelson does. His father, a club pro in New England, was a Ben Hogan aficionado who "beat that into me," Bradley reported. He remembers watching Robert Allenby's 3-wood to 6 feet for the winning birdie in 2001. He loves the "iconic" 10th hole and looking the pictures of the past champions in the locker room.

Interview: Keegan Bradley

Keegan Bradley talkes to Bob Stevens of SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio ofter his third round.

As Bradley plays the final round with the veteran who befriended him at last year's PLAYERS Championship, he knows he can't afford to focus on Mickelson at the expense of the others on the leaderboard. He knows anyone can shoot a 66 like he and Molder did on Saturday to narrow the gap with his frequent practice round partner, a man who calls Bradley a "tremendous talent" who can take as much as he gives back, which high praise in Mickelson's book.

Bradley also knows Sunday will be fun.

"I can promise you I do want to beat Phil, and he wants to beat me," Bradley said. "I just look forward to the challenge of going out there and being in the hunt with him. Like I said, you never know what Phil is going to shoot. He could shoot a really low one or not, so you've got to try not to focus on him as much.

"But the thing that I do have is I have played with him a bunch, I've hung out with him, and I feel more comfortable this year than I would last year playing in the final group. I've got that going for me. I love Phil. Everything he's done for me is great, and if I didn't win tomorrow, I would hope he would."

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