SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A desert critter saved leader Bubba Watson at least a stroke Saturday in the Phoenix Open.
Watson’s drive on the par-5 13th went into a desert bush and settled next to a burrowing animal hole that would have interfered with his swing, giving him a free drop.
“Right next to my ball was a burrowing animal hole and my club was going to hit it at impact,” Watson said. “It was big hole and the club would get caught on it. So, I got a free drop and could easily wedge it out.”
He hit a 150-yard shot to the fairway, followed with a wedge to the fringe and two-putted for par on the way to 3-under-par 68. He’s at 15-under 198 for three rounds and has a two-shot lead over Kevin Stadler (67 on Saturday).
Ryan Moore had 64 to join Harris English (69) and Hideki Matsuyama (66) at 12-under, and Matt Jones (72) is 11-under along with Brendan Steele (62) and 2010 winner Hunter Mahan (65).
Phil Mickelson made a double bogey on the par-3 No. 16, the 20,000-seat stadium hole where he “lost focus” thinking about throwing footballs into the crowd. He finished with 72 to drop to 3-under.
Mickelson, the defending champion, half-shanked his tee shot left on the 128-yard hole. He followed with a weak flop shot into the bunker, blasted to 8 feet and two-putted.
“It was a gap wedge. It was pathetic,” Mickelson said. “I don’t even know what to say. I don’t remember ever hitting a shot like that even in practice.”
The former Arizona State player threw some nice spirals and showed no signs of the back pain that forced him to withdraw last week at Torrey Pines.
“My brother, who is the ASU golf coach, brought out some ASU footballs that I signed and threw out there,” Mickelson said. “I think it’s the last time I’m going to do that, because mentally I was thinking about throwing it a couple holes prior.”
EUROPEAN TOUR: In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, defending champion Stephen Gallacher had seven birdies and an eagle on the back nine to surge past Rory McIlroy and take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
Gallacher equaled the European Tour record for the lowest nine-hole score with an inward 28 for 9-under-par 63. That gave him a 16-under total of 200, with McIlroy in second after 69. Tiger Woods is 11 shots back after 70.
“This is the best back nine I’ve had in my career by far,” said Gallacher, who started the day four shots behind McIlroy. “So to get myself back into contention when I needed to, and given the stature of this tournament, it feels good.”
The Desert Classic is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and Gallacher now has a chance to become the first person to win back-to-back titles at the event. McIlroy earned his first European Tour victory here in 2009 and is still very much in the hunt despite battling food poisoning during the second round on Friday.
McIlroy, who had his lowest score in three years with 63 in the opening round, mixed three birdies and an eagle with two bogeys on Saturday.
“My stomach is better today, still not 100 percent but it’s better than it was yesterday,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I can catch him (Gallacher) up tomorrow. I don’t really want to focus on what he’s doing – try to focus on my own thing.”
Woods, who won here in 2006 and 2008, failed to get back in contention after a disappointing day on the greens.
The top-ranked American had two bogeys and four birdies but missed a number of opportunities to pull closer.
“I only hit a couple of bad shots, (but) missed a ton of putts,” said Woods, who was in a tie for 37th. “Really hit it good but just threw away a lot of shots.”
Thorbjoern Olesen of Denmark shot a 65 to sit tied for third with Brooks Koepka of the United States, another two shots behind Gallacher. Race to Dubai winner Henrik Stenson fell out of contention with a 75 that included two double bogeys and left him 12 shots back.