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After six holes of Saturday's third round at

By David CarducciRecord-Courier staff writer Published: August 24, 1997 12:00 AM

After six holes of Saturday's third round at Firestone Country Club's South Course, it appeared Phil Mickelson would have little chance to defend the title he won last year.

Mired by a "miserable" putting stroke, the tall lefty had fallen seven shots behind then co-leaders John Cook and Greg Norman after a pair of ugly bogies at the 5th and 6th holes.

But a putting adjustment one hole later started Mickelson on a birdie barrage that vaulted him from 1-over par to 5-under and second place, one stroke behind leader John Cook at day's end.

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"I made a slight adjustment," said Mickelson. "Iputted awful yesterday, and I started off putting terrible today. I made a small adjustment in my shoulder alignment because I thought I was getting too open. Once I squared up my shoulders, I started getting the ball in line a little bit better and made some good putts."

The putt that was the final straw came on the par-3 200-yard 5th hole.

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After his 5-iron tee shot into the swirling winds came up some 15 yards short of the pin, Mickelson hit a low running chip shot that checked up, leaving him five feet for par.

"I hit a terrible putt," said Mickelson.

After rattling in his bogie, the 27-year-old pro stood at the fringe with his putter held to his shoulders to keep them in line. For nearly a minute, as playing partner Tom Lehman finished up a bogie of his own, Mickelson worked on the adjustment.

On the seventh, it paid off with a 15-foot birdie putt that brought Mickelson back to even par for the tournament.

"Seven was really a turning point," he said. "At that point I was 2-over (for the day) ... I made that adjustment, and the ball went right in the middle of the hole. So that gave me a good thought for the rest of the putting round."

At the 410-yard, par 4 10th hole, Mickelson proved to himself that the new-found stroke was not an aberration, sliding an 8-foot putt down the hill for another birdie.

"There were one or two putts that were really key," he said. "When I birdied 10, that got me started. That was a tricky putt."

The other putt was what could have been a round saver.

After missing the green at the 13th hole, Mickelson hit another low chip shot that trickled 20 feet past the hole.

"I made that putt for par and that kept my round going, because at that point I was only 2-under," he said. "If I don't make that, it pulls a little momentum from me."

Instead, Mickelson had the momentum of a Mack truck thundering down a mountain with no brakes, sending 60 and 35-footers caroming into the bottom of the cup on the next two holes.

"On 14, I got a bonus putt," he said. "The pin was kind of far right. I hit my (approach) way left, and then I just made a bomb. It was one of those lucky deals ... then on 15, I hit a 5-iron, and pulled it to the right of the green to about 35 feet and made that."

Mickelson added another birdie at 17, dropping in a putt from 10 feet after a 9-iron approach shot.

Having not performed as well as he had hoped in this year's four major championships, Mickelson said defending his title at the World Series of Golf would help to salvage what he considers a disappointing season.

"What would make it special is that it is on a golf course that is a

major championship golf course," he said. "This course could easily hold

a major tomorrow ... It is exciting to be in (contention) because we

might play a number of tournaments every year, but very rarely do we

have great opportunities to win on Sunday. The whole enjoyment of

competitive golf is having that opportunity to win."

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