Phil Mickelson in contention at Fortinet ChampionshipHall of Famer is just four off the lead going into Sunday
September 18, 2021
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Phil Mickelson sinks 23-footer for birdie at Fortinet Championship
NAPA, Calif. – The Fortinet Championship marks the beginning of a new season and, for 26 rookies and other Korn Ferry Tour graduates, the start or restart of a PGA TOUR career.
For Phil Mickelson, 51, it’s more like the culmination of a wild 2021 season, and he’s looking forward to taking three months off to process it all. Well, the PGA Championship victory, mostly. Other than that, his season was a reminder that he’s in the September of his years.
Until now, which happens to be, ahem, September.
Mickelson strung together five straight back-nine birdies to reach 10 under par and with a very real shot at the Fortinet trophy going into Sunday. He is just four behind surprising Jim Knous (65) and Stanford product Maverick McNealy (70), with just eight players ahead of him.
“I'm in a position where a good round tomorrow will do some good,” Mickelson said after making 123 feet, 8 inches of putts with his new grip extension and arm-lock putting method. “And it's fun to have a little later tee time and to feel some of the nerves and so forth. I know I'm going to have to shoot probably 7, 8, 9 under par to have a chance, but either way it's fun having that chance.”
That was before the wind picked up in the afternoon, and the leaders stalled. The distance he might have anticipated between himself and the leaders never really materialized.
"I'll have to be a little bit more precise," he said after hitting just five of 14 fairways.
Mickelson’s 2-wood broke Friday, but he travels with backups and simply popped on a new head. Whatever happens Sunday, he will stay busy. Although the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits will mark the first U.S. Ryder Cup side he hasn’t made as a player since 1993, he will still be there as a vice-captain to Steve Stricker. He plans to fly from Napa to San Diego after the final round, spend a night in his own bed, then depart with wife Amy for Wisconsin.
While Mickelson will be chasing his 46th TOUR win Sunday, the eight guys ahead of him on the leaderboard have seven victories combined. Scott Stallings (67) leads the way with three, while Max Homa (65) and Troy Merritt (69) have two apiece. All are at 12 under, two back.
Co-leaders Knous and McNealy are each seeking their breakthrough TOUR win, and only one of them is a surprise atop the board. McNealy, 25, racked up 11 victories at Stanford, just 60 miles south of here, and has made the BMW Championship in each of his first two TOUR seasons.
A win Sunday would be a very natural next step in his progression, and it would be hard to find a more fitting place to do it. McNealy grew up in the Bay Area, got sponsor exemptions into the Fortinet as an amateur, and had his parents, uncle and friends cheering him on Saturday.
“It's one of the places on TOUR where I don't feel like as much of a rookie,” he said, “and it's going back to the Bay Area roots. Something about the air here, I feel really comfortable, and the grass and the conditions and it's a lot of fun having people rooting for you.”
As for Jim “Hard K” Knous – his real nickname, by the way – well, no one saw him coming. He made just five cuts in 18 Korn Ferry Tour starts last season and got into the Fortinet field on a major medical extension due to a wrist injury. Knous, who finished 25th in the 2018 KFT Finals to earn his TOUR card, has this and one more start to fulfill the terms of his extension.
A two-way tie for third or better Sunday would give him enough points to equal the 125th player in the 2018-19 FedExCup standings, while a solo 12th or better would give him conditional status on TOUR and full Korn Ferry Tour status, allowing him to skip the upcoming Q school.
“Do your best,” he said his wife told him. “Let God do the rest.”
So far, it seems to be working. Two days after world No. 1 Jon Rahm missed the cut, Hard K is playing to dramatically alter the trajectory of his career.
“Yeah, nothing to lose really for me,” he said. “I can go out there and play free and hit the shots that I know I can hit, try to go win the tournament. I know it sounds like a lot, but I'm going to play like that because that's when I play my best golf, when I make full committed swings.”
With so much inexperience at the top; 18 players within four of the lead; and Mickelson, Webb Simpson (65), and newly minted Rookie of the Year Will Zalatoris (71) lurking, the stage is set.