ARDMORE, Pa. — 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 he’s 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, 2011 Masters Tournament champion Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker going into the last round.
Mahan and Schwartzel had 69s and Stricker shot 70.
It’s the first time Mickelson has held the outright lead through 54 holes in the U.S. Open.
“It’s a hard challenge, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Mickelson, who was at 1-under-par 209.
“Every shot requires such great focus because a penalty can bite you quickly. I can’t wait to get back and playing. I feel good ball-striking, I feel good on the greens. I think it’s going to take an under-par round tomorrow.”
Mickelson already has five silver medals as a runner-up, a record for this demanding major.
Saturday was more about weeding out the pretenders for this U.S. Open – and one of them turned out to be Tiger Woods. He matched his worst U.S. Open score as a pro with 76. Woods was 10 shots behind.
The final hour might have been a sneak preview for today.
At one point, there were five players under par, and suddenly there was only Mickelson.
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. He was tied for third until losing four shots on the last three holes.
At 46, Stricker can become the oldest U.S. Open champion.
“I’ve got to play smart golf ... not make any mistakes,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. And it’s a course where it’s tough to come back.”
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 a shot 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 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 69. Schwartzel also went bogey-bogey at the end of his round for 69.
They were at 210 along with Stricker, who made a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole to complete the steadiest round of the day. His only mistake in a round that lasted 5½ hours under sunshine was a tee shot into the water on the par-3 ninth for a double bogey. Stricker had a 70.
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.