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After year-long drought, Mickelson back in the mix at the PGA Championship, just 3 shots back

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Phil Mickelson is feeling a lot better about his longest winless streak in more than a decade.

The way he's playing now, it might not last much longer.

Lefty, you see, is back on a hot streak.

Mickelson birdied four of his last five holes Saturday to keep himself in contention for his sixth major title, shooting a 4-under 67 that left him three shots behind leader Rory McIlroy at the PGA Championship.

He'll play in the next-to-last group on Sunday with Rickie Fowler.

"I've put myself in a position now where if I ... play the way I feel I can and shoot the number I believe I can, I'm in a position to win the golf tournament," the 44-year-old Hall of Famer said. "That's what feels good."

As usual, it was quite a ride for the guy who conceded early in the week that he'll always be a streaky player.

A couple of birdies on the front side pushed his score lower. Back-to-back bogeys after the turn stymied his surge. Then, just like that, he got it going again, sparked by a 22-foot putt at the 14th.

"I needed something to get it going," Mickelson said. "Knocking that one in gave me a little bit of momentum."

He kept right on going at No. 15, where a 158-yard shot from the rough plopped down 6 feet from the flag for another birdie. The approach shot at the next hole was even better, as Mickelson zeroed in from 197 yards and left the ball merely 3 feet from the cup for his third straight birdie. He finished with one more on the par-5 18th, just missing a 45-footer for eagle, his knees buckling as the ball curled toward the hole but stayed just above it.

"It's so fun for me to be back in the thick of it, have a chance, being contention heading into Sunday and not having to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning to tee off — if I get to tee off," Mickelson said. "It's been a nice change."

His last win came at the 2013 British Open, where he turned in one of the great closing rounds in major championship history at Muirfield, giving him the third leg of a career Grand Slam.

It's been quite a struggle since then. Mickelson missed the cut at the Masters, a tournament he has won three times. He tied for 28th at the U.S. Open, nowhere close to completing his slam, his putting such a mess that he began experimenting with a claw grip. He needed a strong finish at Royal Liverpool just to finish tied for 23rd in the British Open, his hopes of keeping the claret jug pretty much doused in the first two rounds.

But Mickelson is used to these sorts of ups and downs.

That's pretty much been the trademark of his career.

Last week in the World Golf Championship, after another discouraging start, he suddenly turned in his best round of the year — a 62 in the final round.

Now, he's looking for another finish like that at Valhalla.

"I just kept the momentum going throughout the round" at Firestone, Mickelson said. "I need to do that again tomorrow. That's the bottom line."

Considering the guy he's chasing, Mickelson knows if will take a low round to claim the Wanamaker Trophy.

McIlroy, who leads at 13-under 200, is the top-ranked player in the world, a three-time major champion and has won his last two tournaments — a wire-to-wire triumph at the British Open, followed by a comeback victory at Firestone.

The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland is used to being a front-runner.

Mickelson knows he'll have to chase him down — Lefty just hopes he remembers how.

"I haven't won this year. That is a negative," said Mickelson, who hasn't gone so long without a victory since 2003. "I haven't been in the heat. I haven't been in that position this year and I'm certainly going to feel some pressure tomorrow, because I want to have the opportunity to make up for the entire year in one round.

"Those five majors that I've won in the past," he added, "really aren't much help going into tomorrow's round."

___

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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