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Lefty's Stumble Opens Field At Nissan

Rich Beem saw his 7-iron plunge into the cup for a hole-in-one and gave Riviera a celebration to remember. He scooted up the back of the red sports car behind the 14th tee and splayed his body on the roof, hugging his new prize.

Beem only won a car Saturday. Thanks to a late stumble by Phil Mickelson, he and a half-dozen other players suddenly can think about winning the trophy at the Nissan Open.

Mickelson had a three-shot lead and looked unstoppable until a 30-inch par putt rimmed around the cup, the first of three straight bogeys on the back nine that brought him back to the field and turned the final round into a scramble that usually takes place at Riviera.

Lefty wound up with a 69, giving him a one-shot lead over Padraig Harrington (70).

Beem, who trailed by as many as seven shots on the back nine, finished with a 65 and was two behind at the end of a warm and wild afternoon. Five other players, including Ernie Els and Jim Furyk, were within four shots of Mickelson.

"It could have been a chance for Padraig and I to pull away a little bit there in the end," said Mickelson, who was at 13-under 200. "Those three bogeys on the back let 12 to 15 guys back in the tournament."

Harrington felt only six other players had a chance, but while they disagreed on the number, they shared disappointment. Scoring conditions were good in the sunshine and mild breeze, but the front-runners stalled on the back nine. Harrington, who made 10 birdies on Thursday and six on Friday, managed only two birdies in the third round, and he can only hope the sequence doesn't continue.

"Whoever plays the best tomorrow will probably win the tournament," he said. "But it's a half-dozen guys instead of two."

Mickelson birdied his first two holes on the back nine to reach 15 under and stretch his lead to three shots, and he looked every bit as comfortable as last week at Pebble Beach, when he tied a tournament scoring record and won by five.

With so much emphasis on his improved driving, the key has been making virtually every putt inside 6 feet. But that's what cost him at Riviera, starting with a 30-inch miss on No. 12 for only his second bogey of the tournament, and a 6-foot par putt that missed so badly Mickelson slapped at his blade right after hitting his putt.

Still, it wasn't hard to find the silver lining on a cloudless day.

"I was tied for the lead yesterday. I've got a one-shot lead today. So, it's getting better," Mickelson said. "It wasn't the lead I wanted, but it's getting better."

Only later did Mickelson realize the reason for the roar ahead of him. From 179 yards, Beem hit a towering 7-iron that sprung off the green and slammed into the bottom of the cup.

He raised both arms in the air, then ran behind the tee and climbed onto the roof, hugging the top of the car before sitting on it like he was on a float in a homecoming parade.

"I didn't know if he was going to fall through the window or what he was going to do," Els said. "But he hit a beautiful shot."

Beem was inspired from watching Peter Jacobsen make an ace on the 14th at Riviera in 1994, then run over to the car and sit in the driver's seat.

"I wish I could take full credit for making a fool of myself," Beem said. "I tell you what, though, the top of that car was pretty warm. And the back of that car is scratched up from my shoes."

Robert Allenby (68) and Charles Howell III (69) were at 10-under 203, very much in the hunt. Allenby won in 2001 in a six-man playoff that he ended quickly with a 3-wood into a 5 feet in a driving rain for birdie. The sunshine is unusual, but not the bunched leaderboard.

"I'm happy to be three adrift," Allenby said. "Three or four shots is not much around this place."

Els and Furyk made birdies early and late and each shot 67, joining Sergio Garcia (69) at 9-under 204.

Mickelson took the lead by opening with two birdes, and he stretched it the lead to three with his up-and-down from the front of the green on the par-5 11th. His approach into the 12th also looked pure, but it released instead of checking up, and tumbled into the fringe. He ran his birdie putt 30 inches by, then caught the right lip.

On the next hole, having come up short of the green, he pitched aggressively 6 feet by and missed the putt. Then on the par-3 16th, he pulled it so badly that it bounced 30 yards right of the green and two-putted for bogey from 40 feet.

Mickelson got his nose back in front on the par-5 17th when he and Harrington both came up short of the green. Mickelson chipped to 3 feet for birdie, while Harrington missed a tricky birdie putt from 5 feet.

"I'm still well in contention," Harrington said. "But the goal on Saturday is to take people out. Unfortunately, we didn't do that today."

Divots:@ After he finished warming up on the range, Mickelson glanced over his shoulder and wished Harrington well. It took him only a split second to realize that wasn't Harrington next to him, but Kevin Sutherland, who was in last place and teeing off at 10 a.m. on the back nine. Caddie Jim Mackay jokingly came to Mickelson's aid by telling his boss the mistaken identity was understandable because it had been so long since they had seen each other _ six days ago in the final group at Pebble Beach. "It's OK, Phil," Sutherland told the left-hander. "You had your back to me." ... Harrington missed the sixth green to the left, and his chip at the flag ran well past the hole. Only as the group walked to the seventh tee did Mickelson point out he could have chipped above the green and let the slope take it to the hole. Harrington is playing the Nissan Open for the first time this week.