Beside him on six under par stands Davis Love after the 41-year-old's third consecutive 68, while one shot behind comes the remarkable figure of Thomas Bjorn, whose record-equalling 63 prompted Europe to dream of its first success in 75 years in the year's final major. The Dane will have to join the stampede to emulate Tommy Armour, though, and those such as Vijay Singh, on four under, and Retief Goosen, on three under, will fancy outpacing them all.
But they might all be advised to look over their shoulders because there stalks one Tiger Woods. He is just six behind, yesterday he halved the gap between him and Mickelson and unbelievably he is back in this major.
That never seemed remotely likely until the afternoon leaders struggled where the morning starters had not. Indeed, it was a day of changing moods as the metropolitan crowd had turned out in Saturday force to holler Mickelson, their "main man", to his second major, but with every passing bogey the noise dial wound its way ever further downwards. Sand did for the Californian at the second and fifth while a three-putt on the sixth brought him back to Bjorn (who had started the day 10 behind) as an outward 37 negated so much of the good work done by his opening 67 and 65.
All week the 35-year-old has highlighted the need for patience, that all good swings come to those who wait, but although the 15-foot putt for birdie on the 12th signalled that the rot had been stopped, the missed six-footer on the last summed up a round of 73 that was baffling in its mediocrity.
Singh's was undoubtedly the strangest round, though. The defending champion found only three fairways but still managed to rattle off 17 consecutive pars before a birdie at the last ended the streak. Singh's iron-play this week has been truly astounding and if the driver or the putter start to follow suit then the Wanamaker Trophy might not yet be switching mantle-piece.
Neither will Greg Owen or Lee Westwood, the two unlikely lads from Nottinghamshire, believe that they are out of it on three under after a 70 and 71 respectively. But, as ever, the most intriguing challenge was coming from Woods.
The forecasters warned it would be the hottest day of the second hottest year on record in the New York area and the world No 1 had predicted something similarly sizzling. But, with respect to Michael Fish, unlike the weather you can always rely on Tiger.
Except the sizzle emerging from Woods was that of frustration rather than glee, despite his 66. It was good enough to leapfrog him from 62nd place to 20th but not nearly satisfactory. As he played Baltusrol in the "cool" when it was at its most benign, this was still an opportunity missed and the 29-year-old knew it. "I'm pissed at myself right now," Woods said. "There were at least three more shots out there for me."
Indeed, Bjorn was to show what was possible as the temperature nudged 100 degrees and the Dane nudged immortality when he reeled off eight birdies to give himself a putt for a 62 and the coveted record for the lowest round ever in a major. Alas that 40-footer slipped past, but in becoming the 20th player to record a 63 in a major - and so equalling a course record also held by Jack Nicklaus - the 34-year-old was at five under having shown remarkable fortitude in coming back from a long series of calamities.
Most unforgettably, the twice Ryder Cup player tossed away the 2003 Open in a Sandwich bunker and the European Open in June went the same way when a final-round 86 relinquished a commanding lead and broke his heart all over again.
Seven weeks later, and armed with a new swing from a new coach, his name was back high on a revered leaderboard. "I came here with absolutely no expectations, but I must be a bit further in my swing changes than I thought I was," Bjorn said. "This was not about records but about putting myself right into contention."
What Tiger would have given for Bjorn's total. Again it was the closing two par fives that most annoyed Woods after five birdies had hauled him to the brink of red figures, especially the 650-yard 17th that he came so close to humbling once more before seeing the monster turn on him. Woods had almost become the third player in history to get up in two on Friday evening when his 354-yard drive allowed him a crack with a three wood that drifted off the green by only a few feet.
Yesterday, he had an even better chance when his one wood took him 20 yards further down the fairway, an incredible 374 yards, but the "light" three-wood he struck from 276 yards out was tugged left - "I pulled the crap out of it," was his technical assessment - leaving a tricky pitch that was only ever going to elicit a par. "You know, it wasn't even that difficult a shot, just a cut-up three-wood," he said. "I was in between that and a lashed two iron."
In other words, the longest hole in major championship golf is just too damn short for Tiger Woods.Reuse content