0

Still on top: Even with sluggish finish, Mickelson leads by eight

DULUTH - A long day of work left Phil Mickelson limping to the finish on Saturday.

An errant tee shot left him with a bogey on the par-3, 16th. On No. 18, he plopped two shots in the water.

With those two gaffes, Lefty's run at PGA Tour history was put on the back burner. But his play earlier in the day at the TPC at Sugarloaf was plenty strong enough to keep him in control of the BellSouth Classic.

The defending champion, in search of his third BellSouth title, takes an eight-shot lead over Zach Johnson and Jonathan Byrd into today's final round. Mickelson shot 5-under-par 67 on Saturday, following up the course record-tying 63 and 65 he put up the first two days and opening the largest 54-hole lead in BellSouth history.

His 21-under-par 195 - which broke Tiger Woods' BellSouth 54-hole mark of 199 - could have been even more impressive. A birdie, his ninth of the day, on No. 14 got him to 24 under for the tournament.

Had he finished at that score, taking a run today at Ernie Els' Tour-record score of 31 under par seemed a legitimate possibility.

But the miscues at No. 16 and No. 18 quelled that talk, and for that, Mickelson seemed relieved.

After all, he still has an eight-shot edge, the fifth-largest 54-hole lead on Tour since 1970.

"It's probably a positive (to drop strokes on No. 16 and No. 18) because the last thing I want to do is have a record or be thinking about it (today)," Mickelson said. "That's not my goal right now. It's to get my game sharp and to get some momentum, not just to finish (today) properly, but to get some momentum for next week (at the Masters).

"It was probably a good thing (to finish like that) because the record is going to be pretty much out of reach. I'm not going to be thinking about it."

Mickelson got off to a blazing start on Saturday with birdies on five straight holes - No. 3 to No. 7.

After a bogey on No. 8, he made birdie on No. 9 for a 31 on the front.

He added birdies on No. 11, No. 13 and No. 14 before fading late.

His finish on the 18th had the fans gasping, first when his second shot on the par 5 from 244 yards out hit the front of the green and slipped into the lake.

After a drop, he hit a gap wedge into the hazard and eventually finished with a seven.

Mickelson admitted he got worn down from a 10-hour day on Saturday. He got on an exercise machine for 40 minutes prior to playing, went over to the non-tournament nine holes to work on iron shots and also hit the putting green for an extended period before he teed off.

"I'll minimize that (today)," Mickelson said. "I've been a little bit tired. It's been a good 10 hours now. So it was a little bit much there at the end of the day. I could feel myself slacking a little bit."

Even with his slacking, he still extended his lead on the field from six shots to eight.

The closest two are Johnson and Byrd, both eight strokes back.

Johnson, the 2004 BellSouth champion, charged hard with an 8-under 64 and Byrd shot 66, his third straight round in the 60s.

Jose Maria Olazabal is alone in fourth place at 12-under 204 while Doug Barron, Steve Flesch and J.J. Henry are tied for fifth.

For anyone to make a run at the title today, it's going to take a low round.

And Mickelson faltering.

"You have the attitude, nothing to lose, and I think that's a good way to go about it," Johnson said of approaching such a large lead. "You probably should have that attitude every day. But there's also a time to be conservative. For guys like myself, anybody else, top 10 or whatever, it's just going out there and having fun. Taking it one shot at a time."