KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Phil Mickelson survived a wild ride Saturday at Kiawah Island with a 2-under 70 in the PGA Championship that left him 18 holes away from becoming golf’s oldest champion.
The 50-year-old Mickelson walked off the 10th green with a five-shot lead and such amazing control of his game that it was shaping up to be another runaway on the Ocean Course.
Far from it.
Mickelson hit one tee shot into the water and another under the tire of a cart. Brooks Koepka rattled off three birdies to tie him for the lead.
The difference was the closing hole at Kiawah, easier as the wind shifted from being in the players’ faces to coming from right-to-left off the Atlantic Ocean. Koepka, in the group ahead, went just long and took three putts for a bogey and a 70.
Mickelson went well long and played a flop shot, a risky shot to most everyone but him, and nearly jarred it. He curled in the 4-foot par putt to become the oldest player with a 54-hole lead in a major since 59-year-old Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009.
That didn’t end well for Watson, who lost that British Open in a playoff to Stewart Cink. For Mickelson, it’s an opportunity to become the oldest player to win a major. Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
Mickelson was at 7-under 209. For all his success in the majors — five victories, runner-up finishes in all four of them — this is only the third time he has held the 54-hole lead.
He will play in the final group with Koepka, a twosome with nine majors among them. Koepka will be going for his third Wanamaker Trophy in the last four years.
Koepka, shaking off effects from ligament surgery on his right knee that has limited him to two tournaments in three months before arriving at Kiawah, called the third round his worst performance of his career.
Louis Oostuizen knows the feeling. He started the third round tied with Mickelson and had a long three-putt bogey. The South African never caught up, though he had his chances until missing a 4-foot birdie putt on the par-5 16th and a 5-foot par putt on the par-3 17th. He wound up with a 72 and was two shots behind.
At least they have a chance.
Mickelson broke away quickly with four birdies in seven holes, and he even managed to avoid losing his focus. One distraction came from the fourth fairway, when Mickelson saw a drone in the air left of the green and said to a CBS spotter, “Can you radio to the TV guys to get the drone out of the flight of my shot?” He saved par from a back bunker.
He went out in 32 — Mickelson played the front nine on Friday in 31 — and was five shots clear until he showed signs of sputtering. He badly missed a 7-foot birdie attempt on No. 11. He pulled his tee shot into a bunker on No. 12 and had to play back to the fairway, leading to his first bogey of the round.
And then he drove into the water on the 13th with his 2-wood, had to hit his third shot from the tee because of where he thought it crossed the hazard line, and missed a 12-footer for bogey. Oosthuizen also found the water with a big fade, dropped further up the fairway and made bogey.
“Mine was on the edge,” Mickelson said on why he hit again from the tee. “I just didn’t feel good about it.”
It was tight the rest of the way. Mickelson is going after his first major since the 2013 British Open, and the final hour made it clear that this might not be easy.
But it will be loud. The gallery is the largest at a major since the pandemic — the PGA of America has said there would be 10,000 people, a number that felt far greater — and Mickelson was the object of their raucous shouting.
Kevin Streelman bogeyed the 18th for a 70 and was alone in fourth at 4-under 212, followed by Branden Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout of South Africa, each with a 72.
Jordan Spieth matched the low round of the day with a 68, still seven shots behind and most likely too far back to contend with a dozen players ahead of him.
Spieth was headed back to his rental home to flip on the TV, a rarity for him.
But it’s Phil. It’s theater.
“I don’t watch golf but I promise you I’m going to turn it on to watch him today,” Spieth said. “It’s pretty incredible. I have no way to relate to it, right? But I also don’t think it’s necessarily that special because didn’t he win a World Golf Championships in the last couple years?
“The guy’s got four good rounds on any golf course in him, and no one would bet against that.”
Mickelson has had three good ones at Kiawah Island.
One more for history.