Phil Mickelson and a back nine to remember at The Masters
By Brendan Prunty under The Masters

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the near-blinding setting sun on the final hole of the day, Phil Mickelson lined up his putt and prepared to give it a ride. He had done this twice before this week, his final scorecard be damned, and he was prepared to do it once more to try and lock up a spot in the final pairing for Sunday’s final round. Seven-under would be a nice score, but eight-under? Yeah, 8-under would be something else.

He drew the putter back and tapped the ball.

It rolled … and rolled … and rolled … and …

Dead center.

As the crowd rose up, Mickelson bent down pumping his first once, twice, then finally, a third time. For the third straight day he had nailed a birdie putt on the most difficult hole on the course and simultaneously sent a message to leader Peter Hanson: Sleep on that.

“I think that I felt the need to birdie that 18th hole,” Mickelson would say afterward. “I’m watching (Hanson) hole putts on 15 from on the fringe; on 17; on 18 he knocks it to a couple of feet. He just played phenomenally. It’s very difficult to try to follow those kind of birdies when you’re watching it right in front of you. And I was fortunate to get a couple there to stay within one.”

The Mickelson magic was on display at Augusta National once again, as the three-time green jacket-holder vaulted himself into the final group in the final round at the 76th Masters. How did he do it? Look no further than a wild, frenzied and you-had-to-see-to-believe back nine, where he carded a 30 — complete with four birdies and an eagle, on his way to a 6-under round of 72, moving to 8-under and one shot back of Hanson. Vintage Mickelson at Augusta National, even if his week began looking like something out of a horror movie.

Remember that triple-bogey seven on the 10th hole on Thursday?

A distant memory now.

“I think when I look back on this tournament, I go back to Thursday and where I was standing after 10 holes and in a position with some very difficult holes coming up to let the round really slide and the tournament slide. But I fought hard to get a couple back, knowing I wasn’t going to get them all back in the first round. That there was plenty of golf left. That I would get a hot hand at some point throughout the round. I just needed to not be so far back that it didn’t move me off the leaderboard.”

He was unfailingly optimistic following that 2-over first round. His theory? Just get a few back on Friday and set himself up in position for the weekend. A four-under second round did more than that, putting in a spot to make a hard charge on Saturday.

A 66? Yeah, that’ll work just fine.

“Sometimes you fall so far back, you make a nice birdie run and you just make the cut,” he said. “But because I didn’t let the round slide, I salvaged a couple of birdies coming in, I left myself in a position where if I did get hot, I could move up the leaderboard — which is what happened the last two days.”

And how. After that triple-bogey on Thursday, Mickelson has played the back nine here at Augusta National at 11-under par. The feeding frenzy though hit warp speed Saturday afternoon, when he birdied the 10th and 12th holes, drawing to within two shots of the lead at the time. Then, after he crushed his approach shot to the par-5 13th hole with within 25 feet, Mickelson stared down a curling putt for eagle and a share of the lead at 6-under par.

Bottom of the cup? Please. Like it was going anywhere else.

“That eagle on 13 reminded me on Saturday in 2010 when I eagled to that pin position, also,” he said. “It was a tough one to get to and I took, again, a little bit of risk to get it along the left side of that green. I’ve hit that putt so many times. I know that it breaks a lot at the hole. I know it’s slow up that hill and gave it a little extra and still barely got it to the lip and it just fell in. When that putt when in, that was such a good feeling.”

The roars in the deepest part of the back nine echoed throughout the grounds. Hanson, playing directly in front of Mickelson Saturday, knew exactly what they meant.

“That was one of those special kind of Masters moments that I’ve been watching so many times, TV-wise,” said the 34-year old Swede, who shot a 7-under 65 to take the lead. “You hear the crowd going wild when he made the eagle. It kind of helped me on 14. I’m standing in the middle of the fairway and I feel him breathing down my neck a little bit and manage to get mine close on 14 and picked up another birdie on 15.”

He closed with two more on the final tow holes to give himself a two-shot cushion. But Mickelson — as he had throughout the day — had one more answer left on the final hole to slice the lead to one. He is one of the few players in the field to have birdied the 18th hole each day, leaving Hanson to ponder that for the next 18 hours.

That’s why the Mickelson was so fired up when the ball dropped in the bottom of the cup to end the day.

Three birdies. Three fist-pumps.

A fourth likely means he slides on a green jacket again.

“I just feel really confident in the way I’ve been playing and the way I’ve been putting and in this setting and on this golf course,” Mickelson said. “I love it here and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at The Masters. It’s the greatest thing in professional golf.”

Contributor Brendan Prunty is the golf writer for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He can be reached at bprunty@starledger.com and can be followed at Twitter.com/BrendanPrunty. This is his second Masters tournament.