Phil Mickelson clings to hopes of historic Masters finish

April 10, 2021, Augusta: Patrons watch as Phil Mickelson putts on the seventh green during the third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
April 10, 2021, Augusta: Patrons watch as Phil Mickelson putts on the seventh green during the third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

It was 35 years ago that 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus shot a 65 on Sunday to win his sixth Masters. Is it too far-fetched to believe that Phil Mickelson, now 50, could do the same thing and win his fourth green jacket?

The odds definitely aren’t in his favor, but Mickelson put himself on the fringe of contention with a third-round 69 on Saturday. It was his best weekend round since a closing 67 in 2018, when he was playing with house money on the way to a tie for 18th. Mickelson is trending in the right direction; his scores have dropped by three shots each day since opening with a 75, and he is 5 under over his past 27 holes.

“This was a round, first time in a long time, where I scored,” Mickelson said. “Where I just kept saving shots and putting it in the right spot. It felt good to shoot a number at least. It wasn’t the easiest, but it felt good to shoot a number.”

Mickelson will need to go low – his best round at Augusta National is 65 – and get plenty of help to have a chance. He will start the final round 11 shots behind leader Hideki Matsuyama. It would be an unprecedented comeback – Paul Lawrie entered the final round 10 shots off the lead when he won the 1999 British Open – and the odds are exceedingly long.

“I’ll need to shoot something in the mid- to low 60s, which is still fun to have a chance,” Mickelson said. “You want the opportunity to do what Nicklaus did in ’86 and shoot 65 and have a chance. I don’t know if that will be good enough, but I’m having a lot of fun.”

ExploreAJC photos from the third round

Nicklaus started his historic final round in a tie for ninth place, but he was only four shots behind third-round leader Greg Norman. Others have made up larger margins to win the Masters – Jackie Burke came from eight back to win in 1956, Gary Player erased a seven-shot deficit in 1978 and Nick Faldo started six behind in 1996. Most recently, in 2016, Danny Willet was five strokes behind with six holes remaining and was the beneficiary of Jordan Spieth’s meltdown.

Billy Horschel, who played with Mickelson on Saturday, wasn’t ready to count out “Lefty” just yet.

“I’ll be honest with you, a couple years ago I would have said that I’m not sure what kind of game Phil has, but I think he’s showing some bright spots this year,” Horschel said. “What is he … 50, 51 in June? And he still hits it pretty far. He still goes at it. Listen, the guy has got a ton of confidence. He’s not afraid to hit the shot when it’s called for.”

Mickelson began the third round with birdies at No. 1 and No. 3 and shot 34 on the front. He made a birdie at No. 13, but rinsed his approach at the 15th and scrambled for a nice par to keep his round on track. He parred in to finish 3 under for the day.

“I didn’t really strike it as well as I did the first few days, but I scored. I put it in the right spot,” Mickelson said. “I got up and down a lot, and it felt good to shoot a number at least.”

Explore2021 Masters leaderboard

Even if Mickelson fails to produce an epic comeback, he is in position to climb into the top 10, which he has done 15 times, but not since 2015.

“I didn’t play well enough the first two days and threw too many shots away to really give myself a legitimate opportunity, but sometimes you get luck and you come out in the morning, today, and it was playable, and I made some birdies. Then the wind picks up and the leaders don’t go anywhere and you end up having a chance on Sunday, which is certainly what I’m hoping for.”

In Other News