Pebble Beach, Calif. - Phil Mickelson was riding high on Friday afternoon, having just completed one of the best rounds of his major championship life, covering a U.S. Open setup at Pebble Beach in just 66 strokes.
But at the U.S. Open, "What have you done for me lately?" isn't just an expression. It's what counts.
A world beater in the second round, Mickelson was on the ropes less than 24 hours later, arm-wrestling Pebble Beach for a 2-over-par 73, fighting for air in the season's second major.
"What was the difference? I didn't probably strike it as great as I did yesterday," said Mickelson, 40. "And early in the round, a couple of key putts didn't go in. I had a couple of three-putts, on 1 and 6; they cost me early in the round. It happens, but I fought hard.
"I made some ridiculous up and downs. One on No. 10 out of the hay, and one on No. 14. Those were salty. I was fortunate to keep in the round and be within striking distance. If I can go shoot something in the '60s, get off to a good start (on Sunday), who knows what can happen."
What can happen was demonstrated clearly on "Moving Day" in Monterey. Tiger Woods began the day a relative spectator on the scoreboard, four over par and seven shots from the lead. After cloning Mickelson's 66 to his own card, Woods moved into third place and will begin the final round five strokes off the pace of leader Dustin Johnson.
That's what can happen. Mickelson knows too well. His Friday 66 eased much of the bruising from an opening-round 75 and put him only two shots off the lead when the third round began. But all that counts on Saturday evening is "What have you done for me lately?"
From the outset of his third trip around Pebble, Mickelson was in for a different walk, one spoiled with trouble. The Masters winner in April, and a four-time major champion overall, "Lefty" came out of the gates with bogeys on the first two holes.
When he bogeyed No. 9 at the tail end of the front side, Mickelson was leaking oil.
"I don't feel like I got myself out of trouble," said Mickelson, who has been second in five of the last 11 U.S. Opens. "I put myself in trouble a lot and I was able to escape a little bit. It still got me. It still got me on No. 9 and some holes."
Mickelson rallied with a birdie on No. 11, but he quickly gave it back with another bogey at No. 12. He birdied the par-4 16th, then had to scramble at No.18 to keep from suffering more damage. In the end, it could have been worse, but Mickelson knows he will be hard-pressed to run down Johson with players like Tiger Woods and Ernie Els running interference.
"(Johnson's) played good golf, exceptional golf," Mickelson said. "It's not an easy golf course, and he's striking it very solid and putting well. That's what you have to do to win an Open and he's doing it.
He obviously feels pretty good. He's won the last two AT&T's here. I expect him to play well tomorrow."
That being said, the "What have you done me for me lately?" mantra can work both ways. Yesterday's failures can become today's windfall. Perhaps those ahead of Mickelson will experience their own reversal of fortunes. Perhaps Mickelson, historically a player of dramatic scoring swings, will experience a Mickel-back. Maybe he will take another spin on Route 66.
"It will be challenging to make up that many shots, but on Sunday at the Open a lot of things can happen," Mickelson added. "I'll be off with the leaders, and I need to get hot in those first seven holes where you can make birdies. You can make up a lot of ground if you make birdies on Sunday at the U.S. Open."
USGA wire services.