NORTON, Mass.— Phil Mickelson can already call it a great year. He wants it to be more than that.
Mickelson captured the third and perhaps most important leg of the career Grand Slam with one of the great closing rounds in major championship history, a 66 at Muirfield to win the British Open. He has two other wins this year at the Phoenix Open and Scottish Open.
Not since 1996 has Mickelson gone this deep into the PGA Tour season with a chance to be player of the year for the first time.
Sure, Tiger Woods has five wins and remains the heavy favorite. Mickelson, with a major to his credit, could pose a serious challenge if he were to win a FedEx Cup playoff event, and winning the FedEx Cup would only strengthen his chances.
That’s why he was working particularly hard to get his game sharp for the stretch run.
And it paid off Friday in the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Playing alongside Woods and Adam Scott in a grouping of the top three players in the world, Mickelson stole the show at the TPC Boston. Even with a hard-earned bogey from deep in the woods on the final hole, Lefty opened with an 8-under 63 to share the lead with Brian Davis in the second FedEx Cup playoff event.
“It was a good start,” Mickelson said. “I got off to a great front nine and somewhat stalled on the back. But after shooting 7 under the first nine, it was going to be a good round as long as I didn’t mess it up.”
He sure tried with a snap-hook off the tee at No. 9, his final hole, that went so far to the right that fans could barely see him through the leaves and limbs as he looked for his ball in the hazard, and then hacked out of the jungle on his way to salvaging a bogey.
“What Phil did today was pretty impressive,” Woods said after a 68 that only seemed worse considering the company he kept.
Scott, the Masters champion, struggled to a 73 and joked later that he rolled out of the wrong side of the bed. “I wish could have gotten in their jet stream,” Scott said.
There was talk of a 59 after Mickelson hit 6-iron from 213 yards to tap-in range for eagle on the par-5 11th to get to 8-under with seven holes remaining, though this didn’t have the look of one of those magical rounds — not like the near-miss he had in Phoenix when his putt for 59 on the last hole swirled in and out of the cup.
More than anything, it was a special day on the greens with a collection of birdie putts from 15-20 feet.
But he’ll take it.
“I putted really well today,” he said. “My ball striking was OK. I didn’t hit shots exceedingly close, other than the eagle putt on 2. But what I did do is make a lot of 12- to 20-foot putts. The one that you need to make to get a really hot round, I ended up making them — and quite a few of them, at that. I was just giving myself reasonable opportunities and I was rolling them in.”
Woods didn’t show any signs of lingering back pain, and he said that wasn’t an issue. He even hit balls after his round. His 68 put him in a tie for 34th on a relatively soft TPC Boston that produced 55 rounds in the 60s. Woods wasn’t worried about what Mickelson was shooting. He only wanted to get to somewhere around 5-under, and he nearly did until missing two good birdie chances on his final three holes.
Davis played bogey-free, holing a 25-foot birdie putt on his final hole to join Mickelson. They were one shot clear of Kevin Stadler, with the Hunter Mahan, Sergio Garcia and Roberto Castro another shot behind.
Mickelson’s game took a vacation from his win at the British Open, though he felt it turning around at The Barclays last week, when he closed with a 65 to tie for sixth. He went home to San Diego to take his oldest daughter to her first day at high school, practicing every day.
And he looked sharp at Boston, at just the right time.
Mickelson knows what’s at stake. He’d like to win the FedEx Cup because he believes it will become more significant as time goes on. And he knows it gives him his best chance at player of the year. Lefty has never been No. 1 in the world, won a money title, a Vardon Trophy or been voted player of the year.
His best chance was in 1996, when he won four times, and lost out to Tom Lehman whose two wins were the British Open and the Tour Championship, the latter giving him the money title because of the large purse at the final event.
“If I finish off with one or two wins this year, and win the FedEx Cup, I think that would be enough to get the player of the year,” he said. “My game clicked again last week, and I feel like these next three weeks I’m going to play very well. I can just feel it. You can just tell sometimes. The game feels sharp. And mentally, I have a lot of energy and I’m able to focus clearly. And that’s usually when you play well.”