CARMEL, Ind. — The BMW Championship turned into golf’s version of an All-Star game Saturday with Phil Mickelson making 10 birdies to share the lead with Vijay Singh, and a host of other proven players lined up behind them Saturday at Crooked Stick.
Mickelson shrugged when asked about all the stars on the leaderboard, only because he figured his name wasn’t at the top and there was still work to be done. That was before Singh had his only three-putt of the tournament from about 45 feet on the last hole that made him settle for a 69.
They were at 16-under 200 going into a final round loaded with possibilities.
Rory McIlroy, going for his second straight FedEx Cup playoff win and his PGA Tour-leading fourth of the year, birdied the 18th to salvage an ordinary day with a 69. He was one shot behind with Lee Westwood, a former world No. 1 who made all five of his birdies on the back nine for a 68.
Dustin Johnson, who has finished no worse than fourth in the other two playoff events, had a 67 and was in the group two shots behind that included Adam Scott and Robert Garrigus, who is trying to play his way into the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake in two weeks.
Not to be forgotten is Tiger Woods, who turned his sloppy play around by chipping in from 25 feet on the ninth hole that began a run of four birdies in a five-hole stretch. He had to settle for a 71, ending his streak of six straight rounds in the 60s.
Woods was only three shots behind.
Westwood is playing these FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time, and already he found out what he was missing. Put some of the world’s best players together, and it’s not unusual to see them all at a high level.
“The cream has risen to the top, hasn’t it?” Westwood said.
This follows the Deutsche Bank Championship in which McIlroy held off Louis Oosthuizen, Woods, Mickelson and Johnson. The opening week at The Barclays featured Nick Watney beating Ryder Cup pick Brandt Snedeker, Johnson and Sergio Garcia.
“It’s the playoffs,” Johnson said. “Guys come to play golf. In the big tournaments, it seems like all year the top guys are up there every time.”
And now this <0x2014> perhaps the strongest leaderboard in golf all year going into the final round, starting with two guys already in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Singh was the dominant figure throughout the day. The 49-year-old Fijian hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in four years, and he was desperate to show that he could put four good rounds together and end that drought. He made enough birdies to offset a few silly mistakes <0x2014> mostly short putts that he missed <0x2014> and he held it together until the end. Singh was in trouble on the par-5 15th until he chipped in for birdie from 50 feet.
He followed that by missing a 4-foot par putt, only to answer with an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th. He was poised to take the outright lead until his approach to the 18th spun down a ridge, and he gunned the 45-foot putt some 5 feet by the cup and missed it coming back.
Singh has taken only 74 putts for the week.
“I’ve had three good rounds of putting,” Singh said. “And I need one more.”
Mickelson had his best score since he closed with a 64 to win at Pebble Beach in a final-round pairing with Woods. He has gone quiet since the Masters, however, but a change to a claw-style putting grip has coincided with improved play. Lefty felt his game turning around last week on the TPC Boston, where he put together four straight rounds in the 60s, and Saturday only affirmed it.
He finished the front nine with four straight birdies, caught Singh with a 10-foot birdie on the 13th, and then overcame a bogey on the 14th with three birdies in his last four holes. The most impressive was on the 17th, where he hit a soft cut with a 6-iron to a tight pin, gave it a little body English and saw it settle 6 feet away.
“It’s taken me a little while to piece it back together, but I could tell last week that my game was back and I was ready to play at the highest level again,” Mickelson said. “I came out Thursday and forced it a little too much the front nine. But after that, I’ve been able to settle down and play some good golf. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s shootout. It should be fun.”
The shootout was made possible by drenching rains in Indianapolis this week, allowing the players to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway. Three more inches of rain fell overnight, delaying the third round by an hour to remove water from the bunkers and get the course ready.
Then, the best in the world tore it up.
“I’m within reach,” Woods said. “I have to probably shoot 63 or 64 tomorrow to have a chance.”
But at least he has one, along with a dozen others.
The 16 players separated by five shots going into the final round have combined to win 29 majors and 21 World Golf Championships. And if the opening two playoff events were any indication, the only predictable about Sunday might be a forecast of pleasant conditions.
The winners have come from two and three shots behind at Bethpage and Boston, including McIlroy rallying from a three-shot deficit last week. That should help ease the sting of a sloppy day that he turned into a decent one.
“Somehow managed to scrape it around in 69 and still in with a chance,” he said. “As badly as I did hit it out there, I’m still happy with my position going into tomorrow.”