Phil Mickelson has a real shot at redemption

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- When Phil Mickelson wakes up Sunday morning, it will mark 938 days since his last PGA Tour-sanctioned victory. Two-and-a-half years without lifting a trophy isn't abnormal for most mortal professional golfers. It's an eternity for Lefty.

This is the longest title drought of Mickelson's career, predating his first professional start and going all the way back to 1991, when he first won as an amateur.

So you can excuse him if he shows up to the day's final tee time at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am with a few butterflies in his stomach. You can understand if holding the two-stroke overnight lead gives him a little case of the first-tee jitters.

You can see how he might be nervous and anxious and sentimental as he attempts to claim a 43rd career victory at the ripe old age of 45.

There's only one problem: Even if any of that is true, Mickelson is simply giving it his best poker face.

He was asked after a third-round bogey-free 6-under 66 about his thoughts heading into the final 18 holes and wouldn't bite on just what it will mean to him to compete under this kind of pressure again.

"I really want tomorrow to be a good day," he allowed.

That's all? No looking ahead? No thinking about what a first win in 938 days would mean?

"I don't want to jump ahead and start thinking about the result," he said.

Mickelson will leave that to the rest of us, especially those who believed he was over the hill. He will let us ponder what it means that a player making his 530th career start might still prevail in a tournament that includes Jordan Spieth and Jason Day and plenty of other twentysomethings who were either too young to remember his first win or weren't even born yet.

They saw a lot of Mickelson on Saturday -- at least, if they checked the leaderboard.

This is a day traditionally reserved for the superstars here on the Monterey Peninsula, which should make it all the more appropriate that Mickelson -- one of the biggest stars here -- stole the show.

Starting on the back nine, he posted three birdies before making the turn, including a chip-in from behind the green on the iconic par-5 18th hole. He added three in a row on the front side for a matching 33.

For the round, Mickelson needed just 21 putts. For as staggering a number as that is, there remains room for improvement within his game. He found only half of the fairways off the tee on Saturday and half of the greens in regulation.

"When I missed the green, I missed in the right spots," he explained. "I'll have [swing instructor] Andrew [Getson] come in and fine-tune my swing for the final round, make sure the swing is on plane. I didn't strike it as well as I have been."

The fact that he leads by two and still believes he can play better should be cause for concern amongst the remaining contenders -- most notably his Sunday playing partner Hiroshi Iwata.

Don't know Iwata? Neither does Mickelson, really. They've never before played together. Iwata will be searching for his first career PGA Tour win, and if you think that pales in comparison to his Hall of Fame playing partner, consider this: The next 15 players on the leaderboard after Mickelson have a combined 39 career wins -- three fewer than him. And that includes a handful of guys who aren't exactly slouches, names like Jason Day, Jimmy Walker, Padraig Harrington, Justin Rose and Bill Haas.

All of which should help put into context exactly what is at stake for Mickelson in the final round.

It's not just a piece of history, as he could move to within two of Walter Hagen for eighth on the all-time victory list, while tying Mark O'Meara for the most wins at this event at five. It's also an opportunity for Mickelson to erase the biggest drought of his career, proving to himself and the rest of us that he can still win.

If he does, it wouldn't be as improbable as his last title, when he claimed the Open Championship after years of struggling with links golf. It undoubtedly won't be as special, either, since major championships trump all others in the world of elite golfers.

It will definitely mean something for Mickelson, though -- even if he's not allowing himself to think about exactly what it will mean just yet.