Phil Mickelson was stumbling and staggering around Baltusrol Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, in the infernal heat of the third round of the 87th PGA Championship, as if someone with malevolent intentions was off somewhere sticking pins into a voodoo-doll likeness of him. And as a matter of fact . . . well, no one here can satisfactorily account for Tiger Woods's whereabouts after he left the course in a sweaty huff a few hours earlier.
Clearly, something was going on out there somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. On a day when some low scores, including a notable one in the morning by Woods, proved the Lower Course to be vulnerable, Mickelson came back to the pack with a 2-over-par 72 that evaporated his lead, disappointed his adoring fans and brought all sorts of interesting characters back into contention with 18 holes to play.
Betrayed at various points in his round by his driver, his irons and his putter, Mickelson squandered what began as a three-shot lead and now finds himself tied at 6-under-par 204 with Davis Love III, who shot his third straight 68 to thrust himself into Sunday's final pairing.
"I thought after the start I had . . . for me to fight and still be in the lead is a huge boost, because guys were out there making birdies, and I was going the other way," Mickelson said. "To gut it out and play the last 12 holes without a bogey, make that one birdie [at No. 12] and still be in the lead is a huge success for the day."
Thomas Bjorn, whose 63 in the morning stands as the round of the week, is a shot off the lead at 205, while Vijay Singh (69), Stuart Appleby (69), Steve Elkington (68) and Pat Perez (67) are two shots back. Mickelson, Love, Singh and Elkington are all former major winners, giving hope to the thought that this might be a Sunday finish to remember.
And look who is lurking six shots back, ironing his trademark blood-red Sunday shirt as we speak, in preparation for one last-ditch run. Yes, that would be Woods, who began the day 12 shots back, but posted a 66 that could have been so much better had he not given away a couple of shots down the stretch with ill-conceived course management and awful execution.
Mickelson arrived at Baltusrol's 17th tee Saturday, like Woods had six hours earlier, thinking he should pick up at least one birdie, maybe two, maybe even a birdie and an eagle, on the two par-5 finishing holes. But like Woods -- only with different methods -- Mickelson botched both and settled for pars.
Unlike Woods, Love and John Daly, who attempted to reach the monstrous 650-yard 17th in two shots with wildly varying degrees of success, Mickelson resisted the temptation and made the smart play, laying up and wedging on to six feet. But he missed that putt, then drove in the rough on 18, airmailed the green and missed another short birdie putt.
As he has all week, Mickelson moved from the parking lot to the practice green to the driving range amid the accompaniment of constant cheers of encouragement from the smitten galleries. Everything was marvelous -- the fans yelled for "Lefty" to "put it away," and he smiled back assuredly -- until he started his round.
Mickelson missed the first green from the fairway, settling for par, then flushed a flop shot 40 feet past the hole on No. 2, leading to the first of three bogeys he would make on the front nine. By the time he made the turn in 37, he had already lost the outright lead.
In contrast to the controlled fade he used to split fairways down the middle in the first two rounds, Mickelson was missing them left and right Saturday -- and when he did manage to hit the fairway, he missed the green from there. And when he managed to hit the green, he inevitably missed the putt.
"I thought I hit some nice shots," Mickelson said, "and wasn't quite rewarded."
At least one thermometer reading placed Saturday's temperature at 101 degrees, with a heat-index of 105, soaking shirts and making it so that towels and bottled waters were as omnipresent in players' hands as drivers and putters. Bjorn, who claims to have played tournaments in Malaysia where the temperature reached 116, said he maintained a bottle-a-hole pace of water consumption.
By barely making the cut -- he needed a birdie on 18 on Friday to sneak in -- Woods benefited from an early tee time, when temperatures were merely hot instead of sizzling, and the greens still had a little bit of give.
It would have surprised no one if Woods had gone out in the morning's third pairing and thrown a 63 up on the scoreboard, thrusting himself back in contention and giving Mickelson a little something extra to think about when he stuck his peg in the ground on the first tee at 3 p.m.
And such a scenario seemed to be a distinct possibility when Woods navigated the treacherous front nine in 33, then birdied three of the first six holes on the back nine -- including a chip-in at No. 10 that had him pumping his fist -- with the closing par 5s looming ahead at 17 and 18.
But playing with uncharacteristic desperation, Woods butchered the last two holes as if he'd never seen a major championship layout -- as if he didn't understand the 17th hole was set up precisely to lure suckers into going for the green in two, as if he didn't understand the hardening greens were fast enough to send over-aggressive putts speeding past the cup.
On 17, from 276 yards out, he yanked a 3-wood into the gallery, settling for par. On the exceedingly birdie-able 18, he had merely a 7-iron into the green, but three-putted for another par. When the greenside reporter for TNT caught up with Woods shortly thereafter, he was sweating and steaming.
"I'm a little [peeved] at myself right now," Woods spewed into the microphone. About his 3-wood into 17, he said, "I pulled the crap out of it . . . I'm a little hot right now."
Later, after he had cooled off a little, Woods said, "I thought if I shot 63 today, it would be a pretty good number . . . [A low round] is certainly out there."
With that, Woods stalked to his courtesy car, got in, cranked the AC up to high and motored off, as if he had somewhere to be and some dark, sinister business to attend to that afternoon.