SAN DIEGO – The way Phil Mickelson likes to play golf, he didn't have much fun Saturday at Torrey Pines.
Based on how he needs to play the South Course, Phil was thrilled.
Mickelson gave up on his swashbuckling style by playing it safe in the Farmers Insurance Open, making eight pars and a birdie on the back nine for a 4-under 68 that gave him a share of the lead with Bill Haas.
"This course doesn't reward you for taking on any challenge," Mickelson said. "Any my more conservative approach into the greens, albeit boring, has led me to be on top of the leaderboard."
He was joined by Haas, who kept one shot ahead of Mickelson for most of the back nine until his wedge hopped hard on the firm green and went just over the back on the par-5 18th. He missed a 4-foot par putt and had to settle for a 1-under 71.
They were at 12-under 204, a stroke ahead of Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson, who each made eagle on the 18th.
Tiger Woods, who has not lost at Torrey Pines in seven years, was nowhere to be found.
His start to a new season brought out a familiar result. Just like so much last year, Woods goes into a final round out of contention on a course where he once dominated. Woods made bogey from the second fairway with a wedge in his hand, and his day didn't improve. He shot a 2-over 74, ending his streak of 21 straight rounds at par or better on the South Course in a tour event.
"I did not play well at all today," said Woods, who was eight shots behind. "It was a struggle all day, and I finally found something at 16. But 15 holes already had gone by, so that was pretty frustrating."
Mickelson's frustrations are entirely different, only at least he felt like he was winning the battle.
Torrey Pines always felt like home to Mickelson, who grew up in San Diego playing this public gem along the Pacific bluffs. He won the Buick Invitational three times, the last title coming 10 years ago. And then Rees Jones came in to revamp the South Course to get ready for the U.S. Open in 2008.
Since then, Mickelson has not finished better than fourth, and he has criticized Jones for changing the nature of Torrey.
Mickelson, whose reputation has been built on taking on risks, decided to go a different route.
"I love playing aggressive," he said. "I think people want to see birdies and they want to see bogeys. They want to see us attacking holes trying to get it close. And this course just doesn't reward you for taking any risk. In fact, it penalizes you. That's why I've kind of steadily worked my way up without too many mistakes."
Even with his longtime nemesis out of the way, Mickelson doesn't see an easy path to winning.
Mahan and Watson each had 69 and were at 11-under 205. Another shot back was Anthony Kim, showing signs of turning his game around. Kim escaped with only a bogey on the 15th after an adventure through the eucalyptus trees, and birdied the 18th for a 71.
John Daly, who pulled within one shot of the lead early in the third round, fell apart with a string of bogeys and shot 76.
Mickelson made only one birdie on the par 5s, and one birdie on the back nine, although it was a dandy. With a breeze in his face, he hit 4-iron with a slight cut just in front of the green and saw it roll 6 feet away to the front flag.
Haas was paying attention to that one, a sign of what he faces in the final round.
"It was a shot that I don't have," he said. "And if I did have it, I wouldn't try it."
He is satisfied with his own game, and Mickelson is equally impressed, saying Haas has a "simple, beautiful swing" with good touch around the greens.
Haas didn't make too many mistakes, and pulled ahead with two good birdies. With the tee back in U.S. Open territory on the 13th, making it play over 600 yards, Haas nearly got home with a 3-wood that set up and easy up-and-down birdie. All that kept him out of the lead was a wedge that bounced over the firm 18th green into the rough.
Woods started the third round only five shots behind, and that was as close as he got.
It what has become a troublesome theme for Woods this week, the wedge is what held him back. From just over 100 yards in the fairway, he dumped a wedge into a bunker and left himself no shot, blasting out to 20 feet for bogey. That was followed by a three-putt bogey, and a bunker-to-bunker bogey on the fifth hole.
He picked up birdies on the par 5s on the front nine, and played 1 over the rest of the way. When he was in the fairway with a short iron or a wedge, he never gave himself many looks at birdie.
The star of his group was Jhonattan Vegas, the Venezuela rookie coming off a playoff win at the Hope. He made his first meeting with Woods seem like an ordinary round. With some good par saves and a two-putt birdie at the end, he wound up beating Woods by five shots and still has a chance to win the tournament.
Vegas was at 9-under 207, only three shot out of the lead.
"I felt comfortable playing with him," Vegas said. "And the crowd was crazy, but it was fun. I enjoyed it."
Few people are having more fun than Mickelson, who hopes to have discovered how to win at Torrey Pines, and is relishing in having his wife, Amy, mingling in the crowd at a golf tournament for the first time since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2009. She showed up at the 18th green at the Masters when Mickelson won last year, and spent much of her time in a golf cart at the soggy Ryder Cup in Wales.
"I love playing well in this tournament, and I've missed it," Mickelson said.