SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Phil Mickelson drew the loudest cheers from the biggest crowd in golf history Saturday at the Phoenix Open.
Mickelson nearly aced the par-3 16th, hitting a 9-iron to a foot to set up a birdie on the rowdy stadium hole packed with nearly 20,000 screaming fans.
Estimated at 179,022, the third-round crowd broke the record of 173,210 set last year, also on a Saturday at fan-friendly TPC Scottsdale. The event has drawn 467,030 fans for the week and is in position to break the mark of 538,356 set in 2008.
Davis High graduate Nick Watney shot a steady 68, pushing him to 9-under for the tournament. The former Blue Devil birdied the sixth hole, then got hot carding birdies on each of No. 12-14. A bogey on 17 and a par on 18 put him in a tie for 31st, but Watney is still 15 strokes behind the streaking left-hander.
Mickelson birdied the final four holes and five of the last six for a 7-under 64 and a six-stroke lead over Brandt Snedeker.
“I know how good Snedeker is and how hot he can get with a putter,” Mickelson said. “He can make birdie from just about anywhere. He’s going to make a run tomorrow. I, hopefully, will be able to keep pace.”
The 42-year-old former Arizona State star has led after each round, opening with a 60 and shooting a 65 on Friday. He fell a stroke short of the tour record for the first 54 holes, and matched the tournament mark set by Mark Calcavecchia in 2001.
Making his 24th appearance in the event that he won in 1996 and 2005, Mickelson is trying to complete his third wire-to-wire victory and first since the 2006 BellSouth Classic — a 13-stroke blowout the week before the second of his three Masters victories.
“To me, the wire-to-wire isn’t that important except for now I’m three rounds and the fourth one is kind of the more important one,” Mickelson said.
“It would be an important thing because it’s meant so much to me over my career having won this tournament, coming back as a past champion, and winning here in the town that has meant so much to me, to (wife) Amy and I, where we met, had our first two kids, went to college. It’s a special place.”
He’s in position to match the tournament record of three victories set by Arnold Palmer and matched by Gene Littler and Calcavecchia. Mickelson won the last of his 40 PGA Tour titles 51 weeks ago at Pebble Beach.
The left-hander played the first 12 holes in 2 under, making a 20-foot birdie putt on the par-4 first and a 25-footer on the par-4 fifth. He got up and down from greenside bunkers for birdies on the par-5 13th and 15th holes, followed with the tap-in on 16, then chipped to 2 feet on the 337-yard 17th.
“My short game is what gave me that momentum,” Mickelson said. “The bunker shots I hit on 13 and 15 were really good as well as the chip on 17.”
A day after making a double-bogey 6 on the 18th when he hit a 3-wood drive into the water on the left, Mickelson blasted driver over the water and hit close to the grandstand. He got a free drop, hit to 15 feet and holed the putt.
“I took a little different strategy after yesterday,” Mickelson said.
Snedeker had a 65 to reach 18-under. He tied for second Monday at Torrey Pines, four strokes behind Tiger Woods in the fog-delayed event.
“Phil is playing pretty unbelievable,” Snedeker said. “I will have to go at some pins and make some putts early and be more aggressive than I probably normally would be.”
Padraig Harrington and Ryan Moore were tied for third at 16 under. Harrington, making his first appearance in the event, shot a 63, and Moore had a 65.