ARDMORE, Pa. — Phil Mickelson could walk away now and never stop counting all the enjoyable accomplishments he’s had in golf.
He’s won all over the world. He captured three NCAA Division I titles at Arizona State. He’s won 41 PGA Tour titles. He’s been part of nine winning squads for the U.S. in the Presidents Cup (seven) and Ryder Cup (two). He is a four-time major champion, with three wins coming at the Masters.
And yet, while most might ride off into the sunset and never think twice about a career like that, Mickelson would give pause. He still has one big hole to fill.
He badly wants to win a United States Open, after a record five runner-up finishes.
Mickelson is 18 good holes away from quite possibly achieving that dream. He is the only golfer under par after three rounds at Merion Golf Club’s East Course.
Mickelson shot an ever-par 70 in the third round of the 113th U.S. Open on Saturday.
His three-round total of 1-under 209 gave him a one-stroke lead over
Americans Hunter Mahan (69) and Steve Stricker (70) and South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel (69) at 210.
This is the first time Mickelson, who turns 43 on Sunday, has held a solo overnight lead at a U.S. Open. He shared it with England’s Kenneth Ferrie at New York’s Winged Foot Golf Club in 2006 – a tournament he lost on the final hole.
England’s Luke Donald shared the lead with Mickelson on the 18th tee, but finished with a double bogey. Donald shot 71 and is one of three golfers at 1-over 211, along with countryman Justin Rose (71) and second-round co-leader Billy Horschel (72).
Tiger Woods’ five-year major-championship drought will likely continue. He shot 76 on Saturday and is 10 strokes off the lead at 9-over 219, tied for 31st. His last major win was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Gig Harbor’s Kyle Stanley had a day to forget – a career-worst 85 – to tie for 69th at 20-over 230. Puyallup’s Ryan Moore, after a second-round 77, missed the cut at 156.
The players had a much different Merion East waiting for them Saturday. Dry weather and intermittent breezes made the course fast and the greens slick.
Yet, a familiar theme played out. Golfers such as Schwartzel, Donald, even Australia’s John Senden charge up the leaderboard, getting as low as 2 under, only to fall back.
Mickelson, playing in the final group, did the opposite. He bogeyed two of his first five holes, then birdied Nos. 10 and 11.
“I think what’s helped me this week is, one – how much I’ve loved the golf course and the setup,” Mickelson said. “But two – how much I’ve appreciated that fact that there are some birdie holes … and that I might be one or two shots (behind) in the round like I was, and I have a chance to get those back.”
The tournament very well might go down to the final three holes. And what brutes they are – a blind approach over a rock quarry at the par-4 16th; a long and treacherous par-3 17th; and an uphill par-4 finishing hole that can play as long as 535 yards.
“It’s the teeth of the course,” Mahan said.
Of the contenders, Mickelson has played that imposing stretch in 1-under par, better than anyone this week. Stricker (even par) and Horschel (1 over) have also been solid. But Schwartzel (3 over), Mahan (4 over) and Donald (5 over) have had their issues – especially Saturday, each finishing with no better than bogey on the final two holes.
“I reckon if you can pull through it there at level par, if you’re somewhere one or two (shots) off the lead or leading … you would be pretty unlucky not to win,” Schwartzel said.
It was at the 17th hole, playing 254 yards, where Mickelson took sole possession of the lead.
“The 4-iron I hit, I just stood there and admired it. It was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” Mickelson said. “I was hoping to get the right bounces and so forth, and it did. It left me a beautiful uphill putt.”
And as soon as Mickelson rolled in the 8-footer for birdie to get to 2 under, the grounds erupted. Even notoriously hard-to-please Philadelphia fans are pulling for Mickelson to finally win the national championship.
“I love being in the thick of it,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had opportunities in years past … 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.”firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/golf @ManyHatsMilles