LOS ANGELES – Phil Mickelson learned as a junior golfer to never underestimate anyone, no matter the size of his lead or the pedigree of his opponent.
And while the odds of Lefty finally winning in L.A. looked good as ever Saturday at the Northern Trust, where he shot a 1-under 70 for a one-shot lead overJeff Quinney, two holes showed how much work remains to add Riviera to his West Coast collection of trophies.
One came at the fabled par-3 sixth, where Quinney hit a seven-iron that he thought was headed for the bunker in the middle of the green, only to land just to the right and roll back into the cup for an ace. The other came at the end of the third round when Quinney holed a 35-foot birdie putt to close the margin to one stroke.
“If the guy is good enough to be in the last group, he’s obviously playing well enough to win,” Mickelson said. “I know that I won’t be handed anything tomorrow. I know how well Jeff is playing. And I know that there are guys that are right there and can shoot a low round tomorrow. It’s my job to go out and hit solid shots.”
Mickelson was at 11-under 202, and Quinney might be the only guy he has to worry about.
John Rollins lost momentum with consecutive bogeys and shot 69, leaving him five shots behind. Scott Verplank overcame a four-putt from 30 feet on the fringe at the par-5 first for a 71 that put him at 208, along with Stuart Appleby (69) and Vaughn Taylor (71).
A year ago, Mickelson had a one-shot lead over Padraig Harrington with five experienced players separated by only three shots. He wound up losing in a playoff to Charles Howell III.
“I like it better this time,” Mickelson said.
And well he should.
Mickelson has 32 career victories, 15 of those coming in every West Coast Swing city but Los Angeles. He is 18-7 when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round.
“Other than Tiger, he’s probably the next best front-runner,” Verplank said. “He’s awful good.”
Quinney, a former U.S. Amateur champion who took five years to reach the PGA Tour, has held the 54-hole lead only once, last year in Phoenix, and bogeyed the last two holes to finish third.
“He’s going to bring a lot to the table,” Quinney said. “I have to bring my best to the table.”
Quinney did not sound the least bit concerned about a four-shot deficit to Mickelson, saying after his second round that Riviera is not the type of course where one has to shoot 64 to make up ground.
Then, he looked as though he might do just that.
Quinney birdied the first hole with a long chip across the green on the par 5, then gained another shot when Lefty three-putted for bogey on No. 4. Quinney then holed a 20-foot birdie putt to reduce the lead to one-shot going into the sixth hole.
Then came an ace that he heard, but never really saw.
With a seven-iron from 163 yards, the ball landed to the edge of the bunker and trickled down toward the cup. Quinney couldn’t see because of the haze, but figured he was in decent safe and walked away from the tee. He looked over his left shoulder one last time, and his eyes grew wide when he heard an enormous cheer from the hill around the green.
He ran toward his caddie, unsure whether to hug or high-five, and it turned out to be a clumsy celebration.
“We need to get that organized,” he said.
That gave him the lead, but only for as long as Mickelson hit eight-iron to five feet and made birdie, putting both at 10 under.
“I thought that was as good of a response as I could have expected,” Mickelson said. “I thought that was a big 2 for me.”
They matched birdies at No. 10 – Quinney with a wedge to two feet, Mickelson by driving to the front of the green – and neither showed signs of backing down. But everything changed with one swing.
Mickelson was on the par-5 11th green in two, Quinney just short of the bunker. Quinney caught two much ball, however, and it sailed over the green. He chipped back to 15 feet and did well to escape with bogey.
But it was a two-shot swing after Mickelson two-putted for birdie, and Quinney spent the rest of the back nine trying to catch up. Mickelson saved par with a 10-foot putt on No. 15, then made par from about 6 feet on the final hole to keep his lead.
It wasn’t a big lead, not nearly as big as Mickelson wanted. But it was good enough for him.
“Tomorrow we’ll go head-to-head, and if I can just tie him, tie goes to me,” Mickelson said. “So that’s the nice thing about having a shot in hand.”