But after a typically frenzied Saturday at the Masters sorted itself out — and that took some doing, because at least seven different players had, at one point, at least a share of the lead — that’s who was left. Mickelson, the three-time Masters champion, shot a third-round 66 to get to 8 under par for the tournament. He will chase Hanson, the Swede who has only once finished in the top 10 at a major but who posted a sterling 65 Saturday to get to 9-under 207.
It all left them in two decidedly different places: comfort and consternation.
“It’s going to be tough,” Hanson said. “I’ve been up on the leader board a few times, but I’ve never led in anything like this.”
How to spend those morning hours? What to eat for breakfast? How to change your routine? Mickelson knows it all. His Saturday — a round in which he opened with nine straight pars, then shot a Mickelson-esque 30 on the back — only means something if he follows it Sunday.
“As great and as fun a round as this was,” he said, “it just makes it possible to have something really special tomorrow.”
They are not the only two who have the chance to win, and at various points Saturday, it was impossible to discern a favorite. The cast of characters who held at least a share of the lead Saturday, in order of appearance: Fred Couples, Jason Dufner, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Louis Oosthuizen, Mickelson and Hanson. By Saturday’s end, eight players were within five shots of Hanson’s lead, theoretically with excellent opportunities. Oosthuizen’s 69 left him two back at 7 under, Watson’s 70 put him another shot back, Kuchar’s 70 a shot after that.
“In the back of your mind,” Watson said, “you know it’s doable.”
Yet there was one looming figure, only one player in the top 10 who has won here before. When dawn breaks Sunday, Mickelson will serve as the dominant presence — particularly here.
“You only have to look at the way Phil has won some of his majors,” said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, in the group at 4 under. “You’ve got to take on golf shots. Fortune favors the brave, at times, here.”
At Augusta, there is none braver, none bolder than Mickelson. On Thursday, he was 4 over through 10 holes, coming off a triple bogey, and the week could have been lost. Instead, he salvaged it, grinding out a 74. When putts didn’t fall on the front side Saturday, he shrugged it off, and used birdies at 10 and 12 to pull within two of the lead, then shared by Kuchar and Oosthuizen.
No hole at Augusta is better suited for Mickelson than the dogleg left, par-5 13th. After a splendid drive, he had 206 yards to the flag. His crisp 6-iron left him 35 feet left of the flag for eagle, and a share of the lead.
“I’ve hit that putt so many times,” he said.
He knew, then, to give it a little extra up the hill. He knew, too, that it would come back right, just a hair. When it settled gently over the lip, the roar told Hanson in the group ahead — indeed, it told everyone on the grounds — what was up. For the first time, Mickelson shared the lead.
“That’s the back nine at Augusta in a nutshell right there,” said Hunter Mahan, also at 4 under. “You can be kind of hanging in there, kind of just 2 under, he’s probably in 13th place or whatever, and then all of a sudden has a good stretch there and he’s in first. That’s very Phil and that’s very Augusta.”
More Phil: his third shot at the par-5 15th, from behind the green. He pulled a 64-degree wedge. Mis-hit it, and it could end up directly in the water on the other side of the green. Yet he cranked up a full swing.
“It wasn’t the safest shot,” he said. But it traveled further skyward than it did across the earth, and settled softly, six feet from the pin. The resulting birdie brought another explosion.
“The crowds are so much behind Phil,” Hanson said. Yet the 34-year-old Swede stood steadfast. He birdied 14 and 15, then snaked a 40-foot birdie putt across 17 to get to 8 under, alone in the lead. At 18, he blistered a 207-yard 6-iron up the hill to a foot — maybe — for the birdie that earned him a standing ovation.
“It’s very difficult to try to follow those kind of birdies,” Mickelson said, “when you’re watching it right in front of you.”
Yet Mickelson did. In one sense, it’s because he executed, and his final swing was a masterful draw with a 7-iron at 18, setting up his last birdie. But in another, it’s because when he rises in Augusta, the feelings are so positive, so pure.
“I love it here,” Mickelson said. “And I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters. It’s the greatest thing in professional golf.”
Other than, of course, winning. Both feelings, for Mickelson, are so familiar. For Hanson, for Oosthuizen — for Watson and Kuchar and Harrington and Mahan — they are almost foreign concepts at Augusta.
“He would be the big-time favorite to win,” Hanson said.
On another Sunday morning at another Masters, that is Mickelson’s position. He will, in so many ways, embrace it like he embraces nothing else.