PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — At least this time, Brandt Snedeker feels it's a fair fight.
He started the final round at Torrey Pines seven shots behind Tiger Woods. A week later in the Phoenix Open, he went into the final round six shots behind Phil Mickelson.
Snedeker, the hottest player in golf this year without a win to show for it, put matters into his own hands Saturday by running off four straight birdies along the prettiest part of Pebble Beach for a 4-under 68 that gave him a share of the lead with 31-year-old rookie James Hahn in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
"You never know what tomorrow holds, but I feel like I'm in great position, and I'm going to be surely more prepared, no matter who is around me in the last group," said Snedeker, who posted his ninth straight round in the 60s. "I'm probably going to have the most experience of anybody in those last couple groups of winning a golf tournament."
That won't make Sunday any easier.
Snedeker made a detour to the CBS Sports booth after his round, and then headed straight to the practice green. He was irritated by missing four birdie putts inside 10 feet, including on the last two holes that cost him some room for error on the final day.
Hahn birdied his last three holes for a 66 at Spyglass Hill, putting him in the final group for the first time. They were at 12-under 202, one shot ahead of Chris Kirk, who had a 64 on the super-fast greens of Monterey Peninsula.
Mickelson tumbled down the rocks and down the leaderboard on the final hole at Pebble Beach.
The defending champion hit a tee shot on the par-5 18th that ran over the cliff and down toward the beach. Mickelson went down to see if the ball could be found — and possibly played — when his right foot gave way and he handed hard on his back side, bracing for the fall with his hands.
For all the celebrity antics that are part of the show Saturday at Pebble, this is the one video that might go viral.
"I got lucky," Mickelson said. "I didn't get hurt."
Not physically, anyway. Mickelson hit his next shot into the Pacific Ocean and had to scramble for a triple bogey, leaving him 11 shots behind and ending his hopes of a record-tying fifth win at Pebble Beach.
All the attention now shifts to Snedeker, who has shot in the 60s in 15 out of his 18 rounds this year. Mickelson had a good look at Snedeker last week in Phoenix when he finally put him away with late birdies on the back nine.
"He's been playing great golf these last couple of weeks ... and it looks like this could be his week," Mickelson said. "But final round at Pebble Beach, a lot of things happen and he has to play one more good round. I know he has it in him, but he still has to go do it."
A year ago, Mickelson came from six shots off the lead to win. There were two dozen players within six shots of the lead after Saturday's round, a group that included Retief Goosen and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, whose 7-under 65 at Pebble was the lowest score to par all week.
Pebble Beach was simply majestic on Saturday, with a blazing sun shining across the Pacific coast and temperatures in the upper 50s.
Snedeker began his big run with a 3-wood up the hill and onto the green at the par-5 sixth for a two-putt birdie. He followed with a 10-foot birdie on the seventh, and then hit two of his best shots on two of the toughest holes at Pebble — a 7-iron over a corner of the ocean to about 5 feet below the hole on the eighth, and a baby cut with an 8-iron that plopped down 4 feet away for a birdie on the ninth.
He didn't make many putts the rest of the way, however, and had to settle for a 68.
In his last nine rounds, Snedeker's average score is 67.8. The difference has been his driving, which went from a weakness to strength late last summer when he won the Tour Championship to capture the FedEx Cup. Now he wants a trophy to back up the low scores.
"You want to win any time you have a chance because you don't know how many times you're going to get that in a year," Snedeker said. "I've had a couple chances the last couple weeks— haven't been the best chances. And this week, I have a great chance going into tomorrow. And you need to capitalize on those chances."
Snedeker missed four birdie putts inside 10 feet, including the last two holes. He badly misjudged the break on an 8-foot birdie putt on the 17th and made a weak effort from 8 feet on the 18th hole.
"The last two really upset me because I felt like I really stayed patient all day and had done a great job and hit two great shots on the last couple of holes," Snedeker said. "Those are the kind of putts you need to put some room between you and whoever else you're going to be around."
In this case, that would be Hahn, who seems to thrive in any environment.
Until now, Hahn was best known for his "Gangnam Style" celebration of his birdie on the 16th hole at the Phoenix Open. If he was secure enough to dance before the rowdiest gallery in golf, then he should be OK playing in the final group at Pebble Beach with a round that could severely change his career path.
At stake are a two-year exemption and a trip to the Masters.
"I'm not even in next week's tournament, so to me, a top-10 finish would be great," Hahn said. "So if you want to compare the Northern Trust Open to Augusta, we can. I would love to play another week out on tour, but just to learn from Brandt Snedeker, he's one of the hottest golfers on the planet right now."
Hahn isn't one of those can't-miss rookies. He's only a year older than Snedeker, and took a far different path to the big leagues. He dropped out of California, and then took time off to work at an advertising agency, earned his realtor's license and even sold shoes at Nordstrom's.
"I feel like I'm playing well just because I feel comfortable," he said. "You know, comfortable and having fun, that's when I'm playing my best golf. ... I feel like my attitude on the golf course is better than it has been in recent years, and not getting so frustrated out there, just kind of enjoying the moment. I keep saying that, but it's a blast to be inside the ropes and a member of the PGA Tour."