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Mickelson game for his next challenges

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 4, 2012
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NORTON — At the start of the day, Phil Mickelson had a message for his playing partner. As Jeff Overton told it, “Phil on the first [tee] was great. He said, ‘Let’s have a good day, we’ll go make a whole lot of birdies.’ ”

It wasn’t clear if Mickelson had an inkling that he would play well Monday in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, or if he was just offering some support for a player on the FedEx Cup bubble, but he turned out to be prescient.

Both players came in under par, with Overton at 3-under 68 and Mickelson a whopping 5-under 66, which was tied for the best round of the day and allowed him to finish tied for fourth overall. Mickelson ended at 14-under 270, six shots behind winner Rory McIlroy.

“The last couple of weeks I’ve started to kind of piece my game back together,” Mickelson said. “The irons have been good, putter is getting to where I want it to be, and I’ve been driving the ball well. So the pieces are finally there.”

Given the low scores starting the day at the top of the leaderboard, Mickelson was under no illusions that he would be able to make a run at a win. But he wanted to get to a place where he could say, “My game feels like it’s back,” and have it be true.

“Now that the pieces are together, mentally I was focused for four solid rounds,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t make any dumb mistakes . . . and now I feel like I’m in a position where I’ve got the game to get myself in contention and see if I can get a win here in these next two weeks.

“I feel like for the first time in a few months that that’s a reality.”

One of the biggest reasons that Mickelson seemed to feel good on the course was his new putting stroke. The golfer has moved to a “claw” type of grip, and said he doesn’t see himself going back to a conventional grip any time soon. He made 15 of 16 putts inside 10 feet in the final round, and 9 of 9 inside 3 feet. He added a 46-foot putt for birdie on No. 13 to push him to 4 under for the day.

“This way I’m much more effective on short putts, and my touch on long putts is better, too,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had virtually no three-putts, my short putts have been incredibly good, and I’m making more 15-, 20-footers.

“On fast greens that we play on, having my bottom hand on the grip so lightly is helping my touch and helping my speed.”

Mickelson had been struggling of late. After a good start to the season — including a win at Pebble Beach in February — Mickelson hadn’t finished in the top 35 in any tournament since May. Nor had he been under par in a tournament since then, and had missed the cut twice in that time.

His first round in the Deutsche Bank Championship was a bogey-free 68, the first time he had gone without a bogey since that win in February.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but it just kind of left,” Mickelson said of his downturn.

Mickelson, though, was finally pleased with his work in Norton this week. This looked like the early season Phil. This looked like the Phil he wants to be heading into the final two events of the FedEx Cup. Especially because the upcoming tournaments look so enticing.

Next up is the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., and that’s followed by the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. Both of those courses stack up well for Mickelson, and he knows it.

“I’m ready to start competing here in the next couple [of weeks],” he said. “I’m going to see if I can get one of the next two.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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