Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Golf

Bubba Watson leads PGA's Phoenix Open

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A desert critter saved leader Bubba Watson at least a stroke Saturday in the Phoenix Open. Some pigskin play cost Phil Mickelson to the chagrin of the rowdiest fans in the largest crowd in golf history.

The estimated 189,722 in attendance had a lot to see on a sunny, cool day at TPC Scottsdale.

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 68 and a two-stroke lead. Watson was at 15-under 198 in the PGA Tour event.

Without the free drop, he thought he could have played a shorter shot.

"I was looking at a 20- or 30-yard shot," Watson said.

Mickelson made 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.

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," he said. "I don't even know what to say. I don't remember ever hitting a shot like that, even in practice."

On the positive side, 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.

"It took me out of my element. I hit the worst shot imaginable, and then I followed with four other terrible ones. It was just some of the worst shots imaginable. I just lost focus, and I think a lot of it was due to the fact that I have never done something like that on the 16th hole. I thought it was going to be fun."

He finished with 72 to drop to 3 under.

Winless since the 2012 Masters, the long-hitting Watson also scrambled to save par on the par-5 15th, holing a 15-footer after losing another drive to the right.

His 7-foot birdie try on 16 stopped on the right edge, but he holed a curling 12-footer for birdie on the short par-4 17th after another drive went far right. He saved par on the par-4 18th after driving over the water into the left rough.

Kevin Stadler was second after 67. Ryan Moore had 64 to join Harris English (69) and Hideki Matsuyama (66) at 12 under.

PGA EUROPE: Defending champion Stephen Gallacher had seven birdies and 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 in United Arab Emirates.

Gallacher equaled the tour record for the lowest nine-hole score with an inward 28 for 9-under 63. That gave him 16-under 200 overall, with McIlroy in second after 69.

"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."

Former Florida State standout Brooks Koepka (70) was tied for third, four strokes back.

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