Phil Mickelson began his week with a flight back-and-forth across the country. Even longer might be the 18 holes that now stand between him and that U.S. Open title he has been chasing his entire career. And hes never had a better opportunity than this one.
Despite a bogey on the final hole of a taxing Saturday afternoon,Mickelson was the sole survivor to par at Merion with an even-par 70 that gave him a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan,Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker going into the last round. Its the first time Mickelson has held the outright lead through 54 holes in the U.S. Open,and the timing could be right.
Mickelson celebrates his 43rd birthday Sunday,on Fathers Day,no less. He left Merion on Monday and didnt return until three hours before his tee time on Thursday so he could attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter. Mickelson,who already has a record five silver medals for being runner-up at this demanding major,was at 1-under 209.
Every shot requires such great focus because a penalty can bite you quickly. I cant wait to get back and playing. I feel good ball-striking,I feel good on the greens. I think its going to take an under-par round tomorrow, said Mickelson.
Saturday was more about weeding out the pretenders for this U.S. Open,and one of them turned out to be Tiger Woods. He started out just four shots out of the lead,and made a bending,12-foot birdie putt on the opening hole. It never got any better for the worlds No. 1 player. He made seven bogeys the rest of the way and didnt add another birdie,matching his worst U.S. Open score as a pro with a 6-over 76.
The final hour might have been a sneak preview for Sunday. At one point,there were five players under par,and suddenly there was only Mickelson. Luke Donald had the outright lead until two bad swings on the last two holes,a 2-iron into the bunker on the 17th that led to bogey,and another 2-iron into ankle-deep rough well right of the 18th green that led to a double bogey. Just like that,one of the best rounds of the day turned into a 71,and he was two shots behind.
Hunter Mahan let his spectacular back nine filled with four birdies go to waste with a bogey-bogey finish for a 69. He will be in the final group for the first time in a major with Mickelson,whom he considers a close friend.
Former Masters champion Schwartzel also went bogey-bogey at the end of his round for a 69. Stricker made a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole to complete a 70 and perhaps the steadiest round of the day. His only mistake in a round that lasted 5 hours under sunshine was a tee shot into the water on the par-3 ninth for a double bogey. At 46,Stricker can become the oldest U.S. Open champion.
Billy Horschel,tied with Mickelson at the start of the third round,kept his emotions in check and shot 72. He was two shots behind,along with Donald and Justin Rose,who also had a bogey-bogey finish. Rose thought his shot into the 17th was pure until it ran through the green into a sticky lie in the rough.
Even though USGA executive director Mike Davis said the course was set up to allow for good scores,this was more about hanging on for dear life. Thirty players were separated by only five shots at the start of the third round. By the end of the day,there were just 10 players separated by five shots,including amateur Michael Kim.
Despite Mickelsons bogey on the last hole,he still has the lead. It was the first time only one player remained under par through 54 holes at the U.S. Open since 2007 at Oakmont,when there was none. Mickelson was tied for the 54-hole lead at Winged Foot in 2006,where he lost a one-shot lead on the final hole by making double bogey. Of his five runner-up finishes,that one stung the most.
But hes back for another try to win his national championship. Of those 10 players within five shots of the lead,Schwartzel is the only one with experience in winning a major. The challenge,however,hasnt changed from the opening tee shot on Thursday. Its not any player. Its Merion.