LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Phil Mickelson believes he will be at a disadvantage in the final round of the PGA Championship Sunday because, as he put it, "I haven't been in the heat." Maybe, maybe not. All we have to go on is what we saw Saturday: a guy who created heat for the entire tournament and started cooking in it.
There was more excitement at Valhalla Golf Club Saturday than there was at Augusta or Pinehurst or Hoylake for any of the three previous major championships this season, and most of that had to do with Mickelson. He stirred the atmosphere with three birdies in a row and four in his final five holes, and the atmosphere stirred him back.
That is what Mickelson can do. It is in the bold way he plays. Someone asked him, after he shot 67 to go 10 under par but remained three strokes behind Rory McIlroy, if the final round will be the proper time to take chances. "I don't really wait until Sunday to do that," he said, grinning when reporters laughed. "You've got to go out and make birdies. You just have to get a hot hand."
It's also in the way he goes about playing. Mickelson is not ashamed of expressing the sheer joy of competing in front of thousands while earning millions. He loves being a pro golfer, and it shows.
That is one thing that sets him apart from the fellow with whom he played the previous two days of this tournament. Win or lose, pained or healthy, Tiger Woods looks grim. Mickelson isn't afraid of basking in the scene when spirits are soaring and noise is rolling. He is a momentum kind of guy.
"It is just great energy. It's great energy to have so many people be so supportive, not just of myself, but all the players," he said.
Truth is, he has not done much to ignite crowds this season. Earlier this week, he described his 2014 as "pathetic." That is what happens when you're 44 -- putting does not come as easily, nor do flexibility and motivation.
All of that gives him inspiration for Sunday, as he tries to catch McIlroy as well as Bernd Wiesberger (who shot 65 playing with Mickelson ) and Rickie Fowler, with whom he plays practice rounds on Tuesdays of tournament weeks and is his partner Sunday. "It's going to be a fun walk," Fowler said. "If we get off to a good start, we're going to be able to feed off each other quite a bit."
The crowd will feed off it, too. "But," Mickelson said, "the disadvantage from my point of view is I have not played well, been in contention and I haven't won this year. I'm certainly going to feel some pressure tomorrow because I want to have an opportunity to make up for the entire year in one round."
Nobody knows how many more times he might be in this position. How many shots at a major does a 44-year-old get? He knows he needs to play all 18 holes Sunday the way he played the final five Saturday. "Those five majors that I've won in the past really aren't much help going into tomorrow's round," he said.
He might have the worst timing of any great player in golf history. His prime years coincided with the Woods Era and now he might have to deal with the McIlroy Era. Mickelson isn't losing any sleep over it.
"It's so fun for me to be back in the thick of it, have a chance, being in contention heading into Sunday," he said, "and not having to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning to tee off."
Early Sunday mornings are for also-rans. Mickelson will be in the next-to-last group, late in the day. If he gets going, he will awaken the whole tournament.