Pádraig Harrigton gatecrashed “The Phil Mickelson Show” for a few hours on Saturday night, firing an eagle and seven birdies in an eight under 63 in front of crowds estimated at 179,000-plus to secure a place in the final group in the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Putting well and hitting shots that brought back memories of the kind of play that brought him three majors in a magical 13-month spell in 2007 and 2008, the Dubliner even kicked a few (Wilson) American footballs into the crowd at the stadium 16th hole as he compiled his fifth successive sub-par round this season and the lowest score of the day at TPC Scottsdale.
For a while it looked as though the 41-year old might go into the final round as Mickelson’s nearest challenger. But in the end the left-hander pulled away with birdies at five of his last six holes - including four-in-a-row to finish - to card a seven under par 64 and lead by six strokes from Brandt Snedeker (65) and by eight from the popular Irish star on 24-under 189.
“Saturday is obviously a much easier day than any other day of the week,” Harrington told the US TV. “You go out there trying to go low and I got a good start, birdie four of the first five holes and created a lot of good chances after that all the way through.
“I could look at it and say I should have made a few more but there’s a lot of good things in my game,” added Harrington, who lipped out for birdie at the driveable 17th and then mishit a short wedge shot at the last after a huge drive at the last, forcing him to chip and putt for a closing par.
“I saw a lot of really positive things about it and when you are seeing that you are prepared to be a little more patient and you don’t feel that just because you left one or two behind out there, it is going to cost you too much.”
Four clear overnight, Mickelson fist-pumped in celebration when he holed a 15 footer for birdie at the last. And it was no wonder. His 24-under total of 189 was just shot outside the PGA Tour low for 54 holes but still set a new best for the event, which he is bidding to win for a third time.
“At this golf course especially you’ve got to keep it going because you’ll get passed pretty quickly,” said Mickelson, who opened with a stunning round of 60 on Thursday, lipping out for a 59. “So you do have to keep focused on making birdies because guys are doing that, and they will catch you. But sometimes when you get it going, you start thinking about the numbers and it will stop you from pushing forward.
“That’s one of the things that I have tried to do this week is just keep pushing, just keep trying to make birdies and hit good shots, get after pins and play aggressive, get good pace on the greens and make some putts, because if I don’t, you will be caught pretty quickly.
“Same thing goes tomorrow. I’ve got to go out and make some birdies and keep it going.”
Harrington’s play was sublime for most of the day. He opened with three successive birdies from six feet, four feet and three and a half feet respetively, missed a chance from 13 feet at the fourth, but holed from nine feet for another birdie at the fifth and then chipped in from just off the eighth green to go out in 30 blows.
He then holed an eight footer for another birdie at the 11th to go six under for the round before dropping his only shot of the day at the par-three 12th, where his tee shot finished on the edge of a greenside bunker, forcing him to stand in the sand and go down the shaft of his putter to conjure a recovery putt he planned to dunt through the fringe.
He hit it too hard, however, racing it 14 feet past and then failing with the return. But there were more fireworks ahead - shots that will give long-suffering Harrington fans the belief that he can become a regular winner again and add to his major haul over the final decade of his career.
At the par-five 13th his drive ran through the angle of the fairway into the desert on the right. But he drew his trusty five-wood and hit a cracking, 247-yard bullet that cut in to the right hand pin, leaving him a 14 footer for eagle. He missed it but that was only a minor irritant.
“It really was a pure shot,” Harrington said. “It was a pity the putt didn’t match the second shot.”
He missed another 14 foot birdie chance at the next but then made amends for his bogey six at the par-five 15th on Friday by producing a sweet eagle three courtesy of a 333-yard drive and a 243-yard five wood to nine feet.
“That’s the same club I hit (into the 17th for eagle) at Birkdale in 2008. It’s a good club for me. I was thinking of hitting to the front of the green but when I saw the pin back right and it would feed into it, I said right, look, I have got to take the chance of trying to make eagle here to have any chance of catching Phil.”
His finish was not quite what he would have wanted, however, and the highight of his last three holes was the way he kicked several American fooballs in the gallery at the par-three 16th. The first was from a tee, the rest from his hands, GAA/rugby style.
“I’ve thrown an American football but I’ve never kicked one.I attempted to throw one and I know my throwing is so poor, I said I better kick them. When I kicked a couple out of my hands, I pulled a couple of them. Then I got used to it and caught one sweet and actually kicked it over the grandstand. Once you get used to it it’s okay.”
Harrington missed a 16 footer for birdie at the 16th and then missed a great chance to birdie the driveable 17th when he hit a 313 yard drive into the green. It finished 90 feet short of the pin and faced with a huge putt and a steep tier in the last third, he came up 13 feet short and lipped out for his three.
When he split the 18th fairway with a 326-yard drive, he had just 86 yards to the pin and looked odds on to finish with a birdie. But he semi-duffed it, failed to make the green and had to scramble for a par.
It was still a wonderful round of golf and one that will only boost Harrington’s severely depleted confidence levels following four years without a win on either of the world’s big tours.
Trailing Mickelson by eight shots, it appears unlikely that he will end that drought on Sunday without shooting at least 10 under par. A big finish would do wonders for his world ranking and likely catapult him well into the top 50 again ahead of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-Accenture Match Play.