This time, Phil's Open wait a good thing

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It is a problem, but a good problem: Phil Mickelson is a bit unsure of what he will do with himself Saturday as he waits for the third round of the U.S. Open to commence.

The tee times are so late that Mickelson found himself in awe of the situation, thinking out loud about playing chess with his daughter or taking the kids for a late breakfast or how much he should practice.

That formula worked pretty well at the Masters, where Mickelson won a third green jacket two months ago.

If you're looking for omens, Mickelson's wife, Amy, was due to arrive on the Monterey Peninsula on Friday night, and the only time she has been at a tournament in the past year was at Augusta National, the site of Mickelson's fourth major title.

Of course, Mickelson has to do his part in all of this, and he took a huge step in that direction Saturday by shooting the best score of the tournament so far, a 5-under-par 66 that playing companion Padraig Harrington described as the best he has ever seen Mickelson play.

"I'm a lot cheerier and I feel much better about my position in the tournament and heading into the weekend than I did after yesterday's round," Mickelson said after he finished two strokes back of 36-hole leader Graeme McDowell. "But I knew I was playing well. I knew I was putting well even though I putted terrible yesterday. I knew I was close. And to be able to make that change and get it going … I'm looking forward to the weekend."

After a call to putting guru Dave Stockton, Mickelson said he made a slight adjustment in his setup that produced far better results than Thursday, when Mickelson failed to make a birdie and shot 75.

Friday was the opposite, as he made six birdies and a single bogey, a run beginning at the long par-4 second hole where he converted a 3-footer that was the first of three birdies in a row.

"You're just trying to make a 4 on No. 2, and he makes a 3," said Mickelson's caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay. "That's a pretty good kick in the pants."

Mickelson followed with birdies at the third, fourth, sixth and eighth holes before his lone bogey of the day at No. 9. He added another birdie at the 11th and parred his way in to raucous cheers, one of the pre-tournament favorites playing himself back into contention.

The 66 matched Mickelson's best round in an Open (he also shot 66 during the second round in 2004 at Shinnecock) and put him among some good company in a tie for second: two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, two-time AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am winner Dustin Johnson and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, who is only 18 but has already won seven times on his home tour. Mickelson will play the third round with Alex Cjeka, who is another stroke back.

"It was spectacular all day," said Harrington, whose 73 left him seven strokes behind McDowell, a five-time winner on the European Tour. "I got to see it firsthand; he didn't miss a shot all day. He hit the ball well under control. Certainly it was the best I've seen him play. It was as easy a 66 as you'll ever see."

Mickelson is one of just five players under par through two rounds and has put himself in position to capture his first U.S. Open, a title that has proved to be elusive.

Five times Mickelson has been a runner-up at this tournament, a record that would be far easier to endure if he someday breaks through.

Mickelson has had some heartbreak at this tournament, losing by two strokes last year despite holding a lead on the back nine. He got beat by a 15-foot par putt on the 72nd hole at Pinehurst in 1999 and came up short against Corey Pavin as far back as 1995 at Shinnecock. The runner-up finish to Tiger Woods in 2002 was no shame, as Woods led from start to end.

Then there is the 2006 meltdown at Winged Foot, where Mickelson coughed up a one-stroke lead on the final hole when he made a double bogey, failing to even put himself in a playoff.

Many times Mickelson has said those experiences are a help, not a hindrance, in trying to capture his first U.S. Open. He understands the nature of the tournament, that trying to make easy pars is the key.

"I'm in a good spot," he said. "I don't look at the leaderboard. I don't look at other players. I look at par. And this is the only tournament really in professional golf to date that brings out Bobby Jones' old saying of 'playing against Old Man Par.' Because if you can just stay around par, you're going to be in the tournament on Sunday, and that's kind of the goal.

"I was 4 over par yesterday and I got it back to 1 under par, but it doesn't matter who is up on the leaderboard or what's going on -- somewhere around par is always going to be in it."

And, of course, he relishes this position.

"I think this is the greatest place to hold an Open to be able to play one of the most beautiful courses and have it be in U.S. Open conditions," he said. "This is so much fun and I don't want the weekend to end. I want to keep playing."

It's just going to be awhile before he does. Mickelson is in the third-to-last group, going off at 3:30 local time (6:30 p.m. ET).

"I'm usually driving home, getting the kids ready for doing their homework and getting ready for bed [at that time]" Mickelson said. "So it will be awkward for all of us."

And yet, it's right where he wants to be.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.