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Big Names Make Way to the Top

Singh leads PGA by one shot over Leonard, but Els and Mickelson lurk to set up intriguing conclusion.

August 15, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

KOHLER, Wis. — Today's final round of the 86th PGA Championship at Whistling Straits could boil down to a putt-off involving the Who's Who of golf and Who's That Again?

The names hogging the top shelf of the leaderboard all have personal publicists and tricked-up trophy rooms.

Vijay Singh shot a three-under-par 69 on Saturday and holds the 54-hole lead at 12-under 204, a pole position he shared until Justin Leonard bogeyed the last hole to drop to 11-under.

Lurking four shots off the pace at eight-under 208 are Ernie Els, who shot even-par 72, and Phil Mickelson, who zoomed from a tie for 14th to a tie for third with his round of five-under 67.

For the record, this four-iron Fab Four has totaled seven major titles, 64 victories on the PGA Tour and more than $104 million in career earnings.

The men taking on these major players include three players at eight-under 208 -- Chris Riley, Stephen Ames and Darren Clarke -- who have combined to win four PGA tournaments and considerably less money.

Chris DiMarco, five shots back at seven-under 209, has won three tournaments since joining the PGA Tour in 1994.

Briny Baird, another relative unknown who started the day only one shot behind 36-hole co-leaders Singh and Leonard, was a leaderboard mainstay Saturday until he went four over on the last four holes to finish three-over 75 for the day.

Baird dropped to five-under 211 overall, seven shots back.

So where does that leave us?

Logic would suggest a distinct advantage to any of the Big Four -- Singh, Leonard, Els or Mickelson.

However, the PGA Championship has never catered to logic.

Thirteen of the last 16 PGA winners were first-time major winners.

Shaun Micheel was ranked No. 169 in the world last year when he scored his stunning upset at Oak Hill.

In 2002, Rich Beem, a relative nobody, held off Tiger Woods on the back nine to win at Hazeltine.

This should provide great comfort to Riley, Ames, Clarke and DiMarco -- all seeking their first major tournament victory.

That said, this might be the year that the bigwigs prevail.

Singh, bucking for player-of-the-year honors this year, appears to be locked on radar.

He still leans toward curmudgeon and has to be coaxed into post-round interview tents, but no one ever said Singh couldn't swing.

Just don't ask him to explain himself for saying Friday that winning major tournaments was not that important.

"Let me make this clear," Singh said Saturday. "Majors are important to me. Probably not as important as the other guys. I strive to win majors. But it's not the end of the world if I don't win a major."

Leonard, winner of the 1997 British Open, obviously has found his form after missing three consecutive cuts -- including the U.S. Open -- in June.

Leonard said he has adopted a "fresher," more carefree attitude toward golf.

"What I do tomorrow is not going to define the player that I am, the person that I am to myself and it really shouldn't for anybody else," Leonard said.

As for Els, well, he's still in the hunt at eight under but not feeling comfortable after watching his swing go to goo down Saturday's stretch. He bogeyed two of his last four holes and needed all the talent he could muster not to make double bogey on No. 18.

Mickelson started the day six shots behind and knew he had to go low Saturday to have a shot Sunday.

He began the round as if shot out of a cannon. He birdied his first two holes, missed a short birdie putt on the par-three third hole and made birdie on the par-four fourth hole.

His best shot, though, was the 50-foot putt he made to save par on the par-five fifth hole, the same hole where he made double bogey Friday.

Mickelson shot five-under 31 on the front and had visions of shooting 63 before cooling off on his return to the clubhouse, shooting even-par on the back.

Mickelson likes his chances to make a run at his second major, but only if the weather doesn't cooperate.

Mickelson doesn't want another sun-splashed day with mild winds.

Team Phil, in fact, wants something just short of a monsoon, with dastardly winds blowing in from the West, the way they were in the practice rounds.

"We haven't seen the killer winds that we saw on Tuesday," Rick Smith, Mickelson's swing coach, said after Saturday's round.

Why root for bad weather?

Mickelson is controlling his ball so well, Smith said, he can shoot a low score on a day when others may not.

Smith said Mickelson has every shot in the book.

"He's like Luis Tiant," Smith said, referring to the former major league pitcher. "He used to have 118 pitches."

And if the winds remain calm?

"I think it will be more difficult for the guys to catch the leaders," Mickelson said. "Not that it's not possible, but I'll have to shoot six, seven, eight under par, and that may not even be good enough."

It already has been a dream season for Mickelson, who won the Masters, finished second at the U.S. Open and third at the British Open.

Mickelson has a chance to finish in the top three of all four majors this year.

For what it's worth, Mickelson has come from behind on the final day in 11 of his 23 tour victories.

And if he could do it again today?

"Well, it would be cool," he said. "I guess I really shouldn't think that far ahead. Let's just put that off 24 more hours."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Leaderboard

Third-round leaderboard from the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits GC:

*--* PLAYER 1st 2nd 3rd Total Par Vijay Singh 67 68 69 204 -12 Justin Leonard 66 69 70 205 -11 Ernie Els 66 70 72 208 -8 Darren Clarke 65 71 72 208 -8 Stephen Ames 68 71 69 208 -8 Phil Mickelson 69 72 67 208 -8 Chris Riley 69 70 69 208 -8 Chris DiMarco 68 70 71 209 -7

*--*

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