Scottish Open: Phil Mickelson in chasing pack

America's Phil Mickelson on day three of the Scottish Open. Picture: SNS

America's Phil Mickelson on day three of the Scottish Open. Picture: SNS

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A CAVALRY charge of Castle Stuart’s class acts trampled Chris Doak underfoot, the Scot beginning the day at the head of the field in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open and ending it by seeing some stellar names disappearing away from him in the distance.

Doak had two fine rounds here this week and one poor one, which was yesterday. He shot 73 amid a flurry of 66s and lower, three of them belonging to Henrik Stenson, the born-again Swede, Branden Grace, last year’s serial-winning South African with five titles around the world, and Phil Mickelson – the pied-piper of Castle Stuart.

Matteo Manassero is back in the running after a good start to today's play. Picture: SNS

Matteo Manassero is back in the running after a good start to today's play. Picture: SNS

Doak said later that it’s “Hollywood or bust” in his final round. “I’m going to fire at all pins and try to go as low as I can,” he said. “The caddie’s trying to make me play safe but that’s not going to happen. From tee to green was awful.”

The renaissance man, Stenson, was 2-over after 11 holes of this championship on Thursday but now leads by two on 16-under. Stenson has his game – and his head – back in the right place following a dramatic slump from a one-time world No.4 to, at the start of last year, world No.230. He’ll have Mickelson as a playing partner today, a marquee match for sure.

Grace, Mickelson, the Englishman John Parry and the rookie Dane, JB Hansen, are all bunched on 14-under, Hansen metamorphosing into a real competitor having missed 12 cuts from his 17 tournaments before arriving at Castle Stuart. There’s something in the air around here. Birdies, mostly. Doak, who is five behind, could do with a barrow load today.

If Doak can’t do it, then Mickelson is the home crowd’s man, no question. He goes out of his way to say how he much loves Scotland and its golf courses and its castles and its rivers and its battlefields and its people but a title has eluded him despite him coming here, for various tournaments, for 20 years. Is today the day? He’ll have it all to do to reel in Stenson and to hold back Grace, too, for that matter. Once Grace gets a sniff he tends to be lethal. There’s a hell of a finale in store.

What a fantasy end a Mickelson triumph would be to Castle Stuart’s three-year hosting of this championship. To have a man who eulogises the place, who calls this one of the greatest of modern-day golf course designs anywhere in the world, to lift the trophy would be a thunderous conclusion.

Yesterday brought more freakish sunshine and more delicious scoring conditions. Some of the pins were tucked away to an extent and it got blustery later on, but the course was still ripe for the taking for those good enough. Plenty weren’t. We had everything from a one – Matteo Manassero acing the 8th – to an eight – Thorbjorn Olesen dropping four shots in one ham-fisted swoop on the par-4 15th – and everything in between. Mostly, though, it was red numbers up there. Northern Ireland’s Gareth Maybin shot 64 and is right there on 13-under. Mickelson reckoned that 10-20 players have a shot at it today.

Mickelson took an age to get going, but get going he did. You wouldn’t want to overstate his performance this week in the context of Muirfield, but he is now putting particularly well and he is playing with supreme confidence, which surely makes him a danger in the Open regardless of how poorly he has played in the championship for the majority of his 19 attempts.

While all around him were making birdies and eagles, Mickelson started with seven boring pars and seemed destined to have one of those head-wrecking days when he created an amount of chances and took precious few. That all changed with three straight birdies from the 8th and three more on the way home. His match was a stark case of the haves and the have-nots in the game because Mickelson was playing with Lee Slattery who struggled, to put it mildly. Slattery shot 80, fully 14 strokes worse than his illustrious playing partner.

“We are getting ahead of ourselves thinking about the win,” said Mickelson. “We’re going to have a shoot-out in the final round and for me to finish the way I want then I’m going to have to get off to a better start. I made some birdies on the last 11 holes but I put pressure on myself to have that late surge.”

Mickelson took his driver out of the bag and hit his X Hot 3-wood, a weapon he says goes “a long way and it’s very easy for me to control”. He’ll have it in the bag at Muirfield, too. “I’m anticipating doing the same thing. It’s what I did at the US Open. That extra 25 yards with the driver is often-times getting me further in trouble and I was able to keep the ball in play here. Off the tee has been a real strength for me and I’ve kept the ball in play as well as I ever have.”

The fairways are generous at Castle Stuart – veritable open country compared to what he will face at Muirfield – but it’s the improvement in his putting that made Mickelson borderline bullish when he finished his third round. “I’m starting to feel much better on the greens and around the greens,” he said. “My short touch and lag game has got much better. I’m much sharper.”

And much loved. Mickelson is the adopted King of Castle Stuart, the strangest kind of local hero. It’s as if he was Scottish from top to toe, steeped in the Highlands and never south of Inverness. It’s not just Mickelson, but the Mickelson family. They are here and they are, apparently, basking in the joy of it all. “They’ve had a blast. They were jumping off bridges into the rivers and were in parks and coming down slides and stuff. It’s been a fun trip in perfect weather.”

Hang on, though. Jumping off bridges? “It’s all about calculated risks. The river was 15ft deep and it was deep enough and they mapped it out and made a calculated decision. That kind of sounds like our family.”

Stenson leads by two, but he has Mickelson and Grace for company and a gang of others around them all set to charge in what will be less of a final round and more of a birdie-hunting stampede across this wondrous links.

FRIDAY RECAP:

Doak on top as locals lead battle for title

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