By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press
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, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker going into the last round.
It’s 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 Father’s Day, no less. He left Merion on Monday and didn’t return until three hours before his tee time on Thursday so he could attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter.
“It’s got the makings to be something special,” Mickelson said. “But I still have to go out and perform, and play some of my best golf.”
Mickelson, who already has a record five silver medals for being runner-up at this demanding major, was at 1-under 209.
And the fun is just getting started.
“It’s a hard challenge, but it’s a lot of fun,” Mickelson said. “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.”
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.
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.
“I should have done better,” Donald said. “It was disappointing, but I’ll take the positives out of today — a really solid 16 holes of golf, and I’m only two back.”
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 1/2 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.
“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.”
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.