Phoenix favorite Mickelson seeks rare wire-to-wire win at Waste Management

February 02, 2013

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Brandt Snedeker has faced this situation before. In fact, three of his four PGA TOUR wins have been been accomplished when he made up deficits of five strokes or more in the final round.

At TPC Scottsdale on Sunday, though, he faces an opponent in Phil Mickelson who is playing so well he had not one, but two chances to shoot 59 in the first round, then defied the odds to tack on rounds of 65 and 64 to open a six-stroke advantage over Snedeker at 24 under.

"Phil is playing pretty unbelievable golf right now," Snedeker said. "And 18-under par for three rounds is pretty good (but) unfortunately for this week it's not. I have to go out there tomorrow and shoot something low and try to put some pressure on him. That's what it boils down to."

And as if that isn't a tall enough mountain to climb here in the Arizona desert consider this: Mickelson is Phoenix's favorite son after attending Arizona State and making his home in the area for 12 years. Granted, he won't be able to call everyone in the crowd that could reach into the 100,000s again on Sunday by their first names but they certainly know his.

"People love being around him, and he deserves everything he gets because he gives it back to them," Snedeker acknowledged, noting that Mickelson signed autographs for an hour after his second round. "He makes them feel like they're a part of the tournament and a part of what he's doing."

Mickelson, though, is the one hitting the shots and making all those birdies, 24 to be exact, and the eagle that erased his lone miscue, a water-logged bogey at the 18th hole on Friday. He's thrilled with the way he's driving the ball after that quick adjustment from Butch Harmon on Wednesday and his iron play has been superb -- Mickelson ranks first in greens in regulation and missed just one on Saturday.

"By putting the ball in play that gives me opportunities to get aggressive at these pins even when they're tucked," Mickelson said. "I have a lot of short irons and am able to play aggressively trying to make birdies. If I continue to do that, I will have some good chances tomorrow, but that will be the key."

In the 85 rounds he's played now at TPC Scottsdale, Mickelson is a cumulative 140 under. He's only shot above par 17 times during that span, and TPC Scottsdale is at its most generous this week, averaging 69.048.

Small wonder, then, that Snedeker needs a go-for-broke mindset when he joins Mickelson and Padraig Harrington, who stands tied for third at 16 under after Saturday's 63, on the first tee at 1 p.m. ET for the deciding 18 holes.

"I will have to go at some pins and make some putts early and be more aggressive than I probably normally would be," Snedeker said. "That's kind of the way the golf course is playing right now. You're not going to make up much ground shooting 4 under par."

Mickelson expects nothing less from the reigning FedExCup champion, who said he wanted his spot in the final pairing so that if he got hot early Sunday the leader "could see it firsthand." 

"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."

At the same time, Snedeker acknowledged that it can be hard staying aggressive when Mickelson keeps pouring in those birdie putts and using that brilliant short game to salvage the occasional pars. So staying positive will be key.

"He's a very dominant player when he gets in the lead," Snedeker said. "That being said, you know, we all have instances where we don't play our best. And he's played unbelievable so far, but you never know what might happen tomorrow."

Mickelson will be seeking a rare wire-to-wire victory, the first on TOUR since Rory McIlroy's virtuoso performance at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open. Only one player, Steve Jones in 1997, has accomplished the feat in Phoenix in the last 42 years.

Owning the lead like Mickelson has done since he made seven birdies in his first nine holes on Thursday can be draining, though, mentally as well as physically. Not to mention, it's rare for a player not to have a bad nine holes at some point, only if Mickelson has had that mini-slump this week, he's gotten through it with pars.

"Being in the lead is probably the hardest thing to do in professional golf, there's no doubt about it," Harrington said. "You've got to try and keep going forward. The pressure is on not to mess up. I truly admire front-runners who can keep true at that stage, because it is a difficult proposition to keep ... going at the flag."

And the pressure won't be on the players chasing Mickelson, either. "If it doesn't go well, nobody knows," Harrington said. "You hide in the pack, and you get patted on the back for finishing top 10. It really is easy."

Leading is not -- even though Mickelson has made it seem that way so far this week. And the final four holes at TPC Scottsdale will almost certainly figure into the outcome, whatever it will be. There's a par 5 with an island green, the famous 16th with its wildly enthusiastic crowd, a driveable 17th hole and challenging par 4 to finish.

"Your emotions really do run away with you," Harrington, who is playing in Phoenix for the first time, said. "The only way I can describe it is it's like playing your first tournament as a professional, as a rookie. You know what you're doing, but it's hard to keep your mind from racing away from you."

The only racing being done this week, though, is Mickelson outdistancing the pack.