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GOLF ROUNDUP: Albany's Skinner fires 68 in third round of first Champions Tour event of 2011; Mickelson surges to lead in Houston

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

SAUCIER, Miss. -- A first-round 76 was not how Albany golf pro Sonny Skinner wanted to start his second year on the Champions Tour, and first event this season.

But Saturday's 68 made up for it.

Skinner pulled to even in his fourth career Champions Tour event since turning 50 years old last year, the qualifying age to play on pro golf's senior circuit.

However, Skinner was still 13 shots off leader Tom Lehman, who broke the course record by shooting an 8-under 64 on Saturday, taking a one stroke lead over Jeff Sluman after the second round of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic at Fallen Oak.

Skinner, who teaches at River Pointe Golf Club when he's not playing, is still getting acclimated to life on the Champions Tour, where his highest finish was tied for 20th last season at the SAS Championship in September, earning him $25,305. In Skinner's other two events last year, he was tied for 59th Administaff Small Business Classic and tied for 44th at the AT&T Championship.

But he has a long way to go in today's final round to catch Saturday's star Lehman.

Lehman birdied five straight holes on the back nine, starting with a 35-foot putt on No. 12, to charge up the leaderboard after a slow start. Then on No. 18, he chipped in from the bunker for his sixth birdie in seven holes. He's 13 under for the tournament.

Sluman shot a bogey-free 66 for the second straight day, getting off to a good start with an eagle on the first hole.

David Frost is in third after shooting 67, and is four shots behind Lehman for the tournament. Six other players are tied for fourth at 7 under.

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MICKELSON HEATS UP JUST IN TIME FOR MASTERS, TIED FOR LEAD IN HOUSTON:

HUMBLE, Texas (AP) -- Phil Mickelson shot his lowest round in two years on Saturday, tying the course record with a 9-under 63 to share the lead with Scott Verplank after three rounds at the Houston Open.

Verplank shot his second straight 65 to catch Mickelson at 13-under par.

Aaron Baddeley (66) and second-round leader Chris Kirk (69) were one stroke back, and defending champion Anthony Kim and David Hearn (66) were two behind.

Mickelson, the defending champion at next week's Masters, equaled the record score set by Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott in 2008 and matched by Jimmy Walker on Thursday. It was Lefty's best score since a 62 in the third round at the 2009 Northern Trust Open, which he won.

"To get a good round like this means a lot," Mickelson said. "Also, to have the challenge to be in contention, to be in the final group, have an opportunity to win, I really enjoy that opportunity. I think it's good for me to be in that position heading into next week, too."

Mickelson has won the last four events during which had a round of 64 or better, dating to the 2006 BellSouth Classic. That year, he earned his second green jacket the following week and is the last player to win the event before Augusta and the Masters in the same year.

The Houston Open became the run-up tournament to the Masters in 2007, and Mickelson is here for the fourth straight year. He practiced at Augusta earlier this week, and only arrived in Houston on Wednesday, bypassing the chance to play warmup rounds at Redstone.

He said winning the week before the '06 Masters gave him a valuable boost, and he sees no disadvantage in trying to duplicate that feat.

"People have talked about winning the week before a major as not necessarily the greatest thing, because it takes away energy, or what have you," Mickelson said. "I felt like in '06, it was really a benefit to gain the momentum and confidence of winning a golf tournament right before, especially the Masters."

Organizers have tried to groom the Redstone course to simulate the conditions players will see next week, and Mickelson said that creates a smooth transition to Augusta.

But Mickelson is more concerned this weekend with improving his shot visualization than practicing shots he'll see at the Masters. He had shot only four sub-70 rounds in his previous four events.

"What I'm working on is what I did best today, which was really seeing the shot and executing and holding that picture throughout the swing," Mickelson said. "I probably did that better today than I have in a long time."

Mickelson switched between two drivers -- with different lengths and lofts -- on the practice range before his round. He's leaning toward having both in his bag at Augusta next week.

"There's a good chance I'll have that," Mickelson said.

Mickelson birdied three of his first four holes on Saturday, under cloudy skies with virtually no wind.

Paired with Lee Westwood, he lost his tee shot left on No. 6, a dogleg left. Mickelson took a drop out of a native area, but then saved par by holing a 50-yard pitch from behind the green.

When the ball disappeared, Westwood's caddie, Billy Foster, kneeled and bowed to Mickelson in joking homage as the huge gallery exploded into a loud roar.

"It could've really been bad," Mickelson said. "I'm just fighting not to have it be a double (bogey), and be a momentum killer. When that chip went in, it really propelled me to play the last 12 holes good."

Mickelson birdied the par-5 8th, then sank a 22-footer on the par-3 9th to reach 9 under. He dropped his 100-yard approach to No. 10 within 9 feet and made that putt, completing a stretch of eight birdies in 16 holes spanning the second and third rounds.

"A fun round," Mickelson said. "I got off to a good start, birdied the first hole and was able to kind of maintain the momentum."

Verplank is making only his fourth start of the year as he continues to cope with a sore left wrist, the result of a degenerative condition. He's somehow still managed to hit 34 of 42 fairways this week and is tied with Baddeley for second among the field in total putts (80).

"The pain obviously bothers everybody in different ways," he said, "but the thing that's bothered me with my golf has been the loss of stability."

Mickelson or Verplank, both over 40, could buck two trends on tour. A player in his 20s has won each of the last three weeks, and three events this year have had first-time winners.

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TSENG LEADS AT LPGA TITLE EVENT:

Defending champion Yani Tseng roared into the lead at the Kraft Nabisco Championship with a third-round 66 Saturday, moving two shots ahead of Stacy Lewis in the LPGA Tour's first major of the year.

The top-ranked Tseng showed a champion's confidence with her aggressive, powerful play at Mission Hills, shooting the round's low score to move to 12-under 204. She erased playing partner Lewis' three-shot lead in the first seven holes before going ahead on the 11th.

After Lewis evened it in the quest for her first tour victory, Tseng went back ahead with her sixth birdie on the 15th.

Lewis finished with a 71. Morgan Pressel (69) is four shots off the lead in third place. Michelle Wie (69) is six shots back, staying in the hunt for her first major title.