LA QUINTA, Calif. — Phil Mickelson made three long birdie putts on the back nine Saturday to take a two-stroke lead into the final round of the Desert Classic.
Making his first start of the year, the 48-year-old Mickelson shot a bogey-free six-under-par 66 on the Stadium Course at PGA West to get to 22-under 194.
“My goal or game plan of playing the Stadium Course is to actually hit drivers and to try to bomb it down there as close to the greens as you can,” Mickelson said, adding, “It seemed to play out O.K., and I gave myself a lot of good chances.”
He topped the leader board for the third straight day after matching his career-low score with an opening 60 at La Quinta Country Club and shooting a 68 on Friday on PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament Course.
“It’s so fun,” Mickelson said. “I just love being in contention, having a chance to win, being in the final group, feeling the nerves, feeling that excitement, the opportunity.”
The tournament winner in 2002 and 2004, Mickelson rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-3 13th and added a 12-footer on the par-4 14th. After missing a 10-foot try on the par-5 16th to spoil an up-and-down attempt from the deep greenside bunker, he ran in a 25-footer on the island green, par-3 17th called Alcatraz.
Adam Hadwin of Canada was second after a 65 on the Nicklaus layout. He has three straight top-six finishes in the event, was second in 2017 after a third-round 59 at La Quinta, and he tied for third last year.
“Living in Phoenix these past few years, this is the golf that I play every day,” Hadwin said. “The greens are exactly what we play back in Scottsdale. So I would assume that might add to some of the comfort.”
Adam Long was third at 19 under after a 63 at La Quinta, and Steve Marino had a 67 on the Nicklaus layout to get to 18 under. The defending champion, Jon Rahm, was tied for seventh at 16 under after a 68 at the Stadium.
Mickelson is making his first PGA Tour start since early October and first competitive appearance since beating Tiger Woods in Las Vegas in November in a made-for-television event.
After opening with five pars, he chipped in for birdie on the par-3 sixth and birdied the next two holes.
“Every once in a while, you just need that little putt, chip, something to fall and give you a little momentum,” Mickelson said.
He will be back on the Stadium Course for the final round.
“It’s a course you don’t have to be perfect on, you have to hit a lot of good shots in certain spots, but if you miss it, miss it properly, you can still play this course,” Mickelson said. “I feel like I don’t have to be perfect, I can come out, play aggressive, which is how I like to play, try to crush drivers and get it down as close as I can to the greens and see if I can make some more birdies.”