Mickelson In Position For First U.S. Open Title
Four-time major champion carries one-stroke lead into final round at Merion
By Stuart Hall
ARDMORE, Pa. – We have been here before, haven’t we?
A Saturday night at the U.S. Open, the third round in the books, and Phil Mickelson squarely in contention.
Seven times since 1995, Mickelson has positioned himself among the top five heading into the final round of the national championship. Five times he has finished second. Never once did he win.
On a warm, dry day at Merion Golf Club, on an East Course thought to be ripe for red numbers, Mickelson continued to lead this championship after an even-par 70 that was stamped with his flair for the dramatic on the inward nine. Through 54 holes, Mickelson is at 1-under 209.
"I love being in the thick of it," said Mickelson, who was also the 54-hole leader in 2006 at Winged Foot Golf Club and tied for second after a double-bogey 6 on the 72nd hole. "I've had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it's been heartbreaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide.
"But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open. My ball-striking is better than it's ever been. My putting is better than it has been in years, and I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it."
A stroke back of Mickelson at even-par 210 are Hunter Mahan (who shot a third-round 69), Charl Schwartzel (69) and Steve Stricker (70). Two strokes behind are Justin Rose (71), Luke Donald (71) and 36-hole co-leader Billy Horschel (72).
Rickie Fowler posted the day's low round, a 3-under 67, that moved him up 28 positions on the leader board. He is alone in ninth place at 3-over 213, one shot behind Jason Day, the 2011 U.S. Open runner-up.
After quaint little Merion bruised and battered the 156-player field for two days, Saturday was thought to be an opportunity for the players to shove back. The wind was down, the rain was gone and the course conditions were believed to be favorable for scoring. The par-4 10th hole, for example, was set up to play 280 yards.
Merion, though, continues to be a stern challenge regardless of whose era it is – Bob Jones', Ben Hogan's, Lee Trevino's or Mickelson's. The third-round field scoring average of 74.356 was slightly higher than the first round's 74.307, and the latter average includes those who failed to make the cut.
Players continued to be vexed by Hugh Wilson's 101-year-old design.
"Because this course is very penalizing," Mahan explained. "If you hit an errant shot, you're going to have a tough time making par. It's hard to string along three, four, five birdies in a row. Even if you hit a good shot, you still have a putt that probably is going to break a lot and have difficult speed. So this course tests you from tee to green."
It's also relentless, especially the final four holes. Of the leader board's top seven players, four bogeyed or double-bogeyed the 254-yard, par-3 17th and the 530-yard, par-4 18th. And Mickelson left his 10-foot par attempt on 18 2 inches shy of the hole; otherwise he would be taking a two-stroke lead into Sunday.
"If you hit one bad shot on any of those [final] four holes, it generally leads to a bogey," said Rose of the stretch that included four of the five toughest holes in Round 3. "They're very unforgiving from that point of view. So you just got to play a clean nine or 10 shots … in regulation. If you don't do that, you are really struggling for par. So it asks the questions, for sure."
Of those same seven leaders, only Stricker and Horschel played the quartet without a bogey — and also without a birdie.
After his opening 67, Mickelson played his next 27 holes in four over. He had fallen out of the lead on the outward nine on Saturday. Successive birdies at the 10th and the 370-yard, par-4 11th got him back to within a stroke.
As the jostling on the leader board began to settle down – no fewer than five players owned or shared the lead in the third round – Mickelson stepped to the forefront on the 17th.
"On the tee I'm just thinking three," he said. "I just want to hit the green and make par and see if I could make a putt. But I just stood there and admired [my 4-iron tee shot]. It was one of the best shots I've ever hit."
The shot came to rest 8 feet below the hole, allowing Mickelson to be aggressive on his birdie attempt. When the putt fell into the hole, the packed stands to the left and back of the green erupted.
Mickelson, a four-time major champion and sentimental favorite no matter the U.S. Open venue, was back in a familiar position.
"It's got the makings to be something special," said Mickelson of a Sunday that will also mark his 43rd birthday on Father's Day.
It also has the makings of something all too familiar, especially with this caveat: No 54-hole leader in the four previous U.S. Opens at Merion has gone on to win the championship.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.