KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- — The image has become familiar over the years. Phil Mickelson holes a birdie putt and drops that left fist in tempered celebration as he makes his run up the leaderboard in a major.
This was Friday at the PGA Championship, and he kept right on going until he was in the lead.
Even at age 50.
Tentative on the toughest stretch at Kiawah Island as he started dropping shots by missing putts, Mickelson began to look ageless Friday in the PGA Championship with brilliant iron play and a pair of big birdies that led to a 31 on the front nine of the Ocean Course and a 3-under 69.
He had a two-shot lead among early starters, and if his lead held, he would be the oldest player to lead after any round of a major since 59-year-old Tom Watson had the 54-hole lead at Turnberry in the 2009 British Open.
“It’s really fun, obviously, to make a putt on the last hole, finish a round like that and then to have that type of support here has been pretty special,” Mickelson said.
The last birdie was from just inside 25 feet on the ninth hole, with cheers that sounded louder than the limited gallery allowed and carried plenty of hope that Lefty could become golf's oldest major champion on one of the tougher tracks.
The record belongs to Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
Branden Grace had a flawless round and was in the lead until he hit his tee shot into the water on the par-3 17th and made double bogey, and then made bogey on the closing hole for a 71.
Mickelson was being interviewed on TV when Grace fell back with his double bogey, and this development immediately was conveyed to him. He was not overly excited.
“If you were to tell me that Sunday night, I’d really enjoy that,” Mickelson said. “But right now there’s a lot of work to do. ... The fact is I’m heading into the weekend with an opportunity and I’m playing really well and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
Mickelson has not won on the PGA Tour in three years. His last major championship was the 2013 British Open at Muirfield. He no longer is among the top 100 in the world.
But he's Phil Mickelson, who has spent a career leaving fans wondering what he'll do next.
“I think he has the bit between his teeth,” said three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who played alongside Mickelson for two days. “I think he believes he can do it in these conditions. He's not here to make the cut.”
The cut appeared to be out of reach for Dustin Johnson, the world's No. 1 player who now has missed consecutive cuts in majors since his Masters victory in November. He had an eagle and a birdie over his last three holes and still shot 74.
Mickelson was at 5-under 139.
Grace and fellow South African Christiaan Bezuidenhuit (70) were two shots behind, followed by a group at 2-under 142 that included former U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland (72) and Corey Conners, the 18-hole leader who didn't make a par until his eighth hole and shot 75.
“It's fun in a kind of a sick way,” Ian Poulter said. He was 6 under through 12 holes, the best start of the week, when he noticed a video board behind the 13th green that posted his score and suggested he was in range of the course record.
It's a wonder Poulter's eyes didn't pop out of his head.
“I just started laughing to myself like, ‘Who in the world would write that and put that on a board with that last five holes to play?’” Poulter said.
He bogeyed four of his last six, which feature the four hardest holes on the course, for a 70.
Cameron Tringale was two shots off the lead, playing early in the afternoon, when he took a triple bogey on the par-3 14th, a 10 on the 16th hole, a quadruple-bogey 7 on the 17th and a bogey on the 18th. He shot 48 on the back nine.
“It’s not very enjoyable out there because it’s so hard, and every hole is a disaster waiting to happen,” British Open champion Shane Lowry said. “So it’s very stressful and there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of nerves and a lot of tension out there, but you just have to get on with it and try and hit the best shots you can, and that’s all I’ve been doing.”
Lowry managed a 71, including a par save on the par-5 16th when he hit his drive so far right it was on the beach.
Mickelson had no such issues. His mistakes came mostly on the greens, and they were only bogeys, which are expected at Kiawah Island in this wind. Mickelson has shown glimpses in recent weeks, but he is concerned about losing focus. This had his attention.
He also has a 2-wood in the bag that helps him control his accuracy, at least with the wind at his back. Mickelson missed only three fairways.
“If he can keep it straight and hit it the way that he’s been hitting, he’s going to be around on Sunday for sure,” Jason Day said after playing with him for two rounds. “With Phil, you kind of get some off-the-map drives that make it very interesting, and he’s kept it very, very straight over the last two days.”