Cameron Smith will take a four-shot lead into the final round of LIV Golf Bedminster, seeking his third victory on the new circuit since leaving the PGA Tour last year. But he’ll have to contend with a New Jersey crowd desperate for Phil Mickelson to turn back the clock and a fiery Patrick Reed snapping at his heels.
Smith built on his first round lead of five under par with a crafty 67 at the difficult par-71 Trump Bedminster layout to top the leaderboard at nine under. Mickelson battled the narrow fairways and thick rough to match Smith’s 67 while South African Dean Burmester (68) shared second with Mickelson at five under.
On Saturday, a small but well-lubricated crowd chanted Mickelson’s name at every chance. Lefty claimed one of his majors in the Garden State only 30 minutes from Bedminster – the 2006 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Four years earlier, he was the overwhelming crowd favourite across the Hudson River at New York’s famed Bethpage Black at the US Open, when New York, Jersey and other neighbouring states banded together and tried, unsuccessfully, to cheer him over the line against eventual winner Tiger Woods.
Mickelson acknowledged the nerves he’ll feel Sunday at LIV Bedminster, and the tough task of a 53-year-old making up a four-shot deficit to last year’s Open champion Smith. His last worldwide victory was the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah, when he won a sixth major at the age of 50. He has showed glimpses of form this year, including a tie for second behind winner Jon Rahm at the Masters.
“I’ll feel it [the nerves],” he said. “I haven’t won since the PGA in 2021, so it’s been a couple years, and I would love getting back into that feeling of having a chance to win and having each shot bring that pressure about. That’s why I still want to play because I love that challenge of trying to compete and trying to do that, and I still get nervous every time I have a chance.”
But he said the Jersey fans will give him a shot of confidence.
“The people here have been terrific, loud and supportive,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun … I’m looking for hopefully more tomorrow. I love playing in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. The people have been great to me here, and I feel good hitting some good shots and shooting some good scores. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, and it’s going to be a fun day.”
Smith isn’t scared of a tough crowd. The Queenslander is in sensational form this year; finishing tied ninth at the PGA Championship in western New York and fourth at the US Open in Los Angeles. Both results were careers bests in those majors. Although his Open Championship defence did not go well at Royal Liverpool last month, he did win LIV’s London area event while in the UK.
That first major win, the 2022 Open at St Andrews, came against the most hostile crowds Smith will likely ever face in his career. In Scotland, he was chasing down Rory McIlroy against the jeers of a crowd hungry for the Northern Irishman to win.
“Yeah, I don’t mind a rowdy crowd. I actually quite enjoy it,” Smith said Saturday night in Bedminster. “I think it’s nice down the fairway, but once you’re over the ball and you’re trying to hit your shot, it’s always just about committing to your shot and doing what you have to do to get it in there tight and keep making birdies.”
But it won’t just be about Mickelson. The leaderboard after two rounds included India’s Anirban Lahiri, who shot 65 on day two to sit four under, as well as two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson and his fellow Augusta winner Reed.
Reed, no stranger to hostile galleries, said he relished the chance to put pressure on Smith. “I’m going to try to run him down,” Reed said of Smith. “If not try to run him down, at least help the  Aces [team] get higher up that board.”
Smith will play in the final group with Mickelson and Burmester, teeing off at 1.05pm local (3.05am Monday AEST). Reed will be in the group in front with Watson and Lahiri.
Say what you want about LIV Golf, but this won’t be boring.