Muirfield decimates British Open field on unforgiving Saturday

GULLANE, Scotland – Phil Mickelson had just carded a 1-over 72 to put him 2-over for the British Open heading into the final round when he was asked about his chances to win.

"Well, I think that 1-under will probably be leading," he replied. "I'll be three shots [back] heading into the final round, I certainly think that's a good spot to be in."

Never mind that Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods were sitting at 2-under with still five holes to play in their third round, or that Westwood would birdie 14 to move to 3-under, or that Mickelson was eyeing a TV next to him showing the leaderboard.

One-under, he said without hesitation, would be the leading score after three rounds.

[Related: Lee Westwood carries two-shot lead into final round of British Open]

Turns out Mickelson was half right – Tiger did finish at 1-under – but not all right only because Lee Westwood dropped an 8-foot breaker for par, a 10-footer for bogey and a 20-footer for birdie over the last four holes to finish at 3-under.

The John Deere Classic this ain't, which, if you're a 15-handicapper, is a welcome reprieve.

Muirfield – waterless, treeless, windmill-less – has kicked the best golfers in the shins, and it's done it without any trickeration. 

Whereas Augusta National is tricked up to produce birdies (and thunderous roars) on the back nine of the Masters and the U.S. Open is booby-trapped to be birdie-proof, there are no shenanigans here. Muirfield is what it is, regardless of whatever hijinks the Royal & Ancient Golf Club has tried to do to it this week.

Wind, sun and no rain has made it rock hard, turning all 18 holes into your kitchen floor. The Sunday crossword is easier than stopping a putt – even a three-footer – on these greens.

Seriously, try stopping a putt on your kitchen floor.

Muirfield has done to the world's best golfers what Justin Bieber has to his pants – brought them to their knees.

[Related: Martin Laird penalized one stroke thanks to spectator]

Of the 83 rounds played Saturday, 12 were under par. Shiv Kapur, who shot a 68 on Thursday, carded an 83. Scotsman Martin Laird was 2-under, just one stroke off the lead, when he carded a 9 on the par-4 third. "The golf course is brutally hard," he said. He heads into the final round 12 strokes back. And Miguel Angel Jimenez, the leader after 36 holes, stumbled his way to a 77 on Saturday, which means he and his ponytail will need to make up six strokes on Sunday.

"The course, I think, played the best today, honestly," said Adam Scott, who will be paired with Tiger Woods in the penultimate group on Sunday. "You just had a really demanding golf course that required a lot of thought and strategy, and I don't think you can ask for any more than that."

It was predicted that the test Muirfield would present would mean only the best golfers would survive, and it's come to pass. Aside from Westwood, one of if not the best golfers to have never won a major, the top of the leaderboard includes three of the top-10 players in the world (Woods, Adam Scott and Mickelson), a two-time Major winner in Angel Cabrera and a Masters champion (Zach Johnson).

The winner on Sunday will not be 19-under, as Jordan Spieth (plus-6) was a week ago at the John Deere, where 71 of the 72 players who made the cut finished under par. Only three players remain in red figures heading into the final 18 holes of this championship.

"I'm not embarrassed about today," Laird said after shooting 81 on Saturday.

That pretty much tells you all you need to know about Muirfield.

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