Despite a bogey on the monstrous par-4, 521-yard 18th, Phil Mickelson, who has come up just short five times at the U.S. Open, shot a solid even-par 70, one-under total, on Saturday at Merion, giving him a one-shot edge over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker. Sunday’s final round is not only Father’s Day, but it’s also Phil’s 43rd birthday.
Phil, who is campaigning for Father-of-the-year, flew across the country in his private jet twice earlier this week to attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation. The return flight was a redeye from San Diego to Philadelphia just a few hours before he teed off on Thursday.
Oh, it’s set up so perfectly for Phil. He *has* to win this U.S. Open, right? Plus, he’s running out of time to capture a major that has slipped through his fingers on more than one or four occasions.
“I love being in the thick of it,” said Mickelson, who has made only seven bogeys (and nothing worse). “I’ve had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it’s been heart breaking 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.
“Given that I’ve had some past major championships now and some success here, I feel as well equipped as I could be heading into tomorrow’s final round and I think it’s going to be fun.”
Phil has slept on the 54-hole lead four times in major championships and he’s closed the deal in three of them — the 2004 and 2006 Masters and the 2005 PGA Championship. The only time he didn’t? The 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, of course. Phil had a one-shot lead on the 72nd hole and he knocked a push-slice that bounced off the hospitality tents miles left of the fairway.
What does Phil need to do to win tomorrow?
“A low score,” he said. “A good score tomorrow. I don’t know what number that is, but I do believe I’ve got an under par round in me tomorrow even with the difficult pins and the possibly firmer conditions.”
If he shoots 69 — or even 70 — that might be enough. After all, the winner always seems to finish right around par, just as the USGA likes it. Regardless, it should be a thrilling finish, especially with those monstrous closing holes.
Maybe the whole narrative is oh-t00 perfect? (Honestly, I hate these narratives that are shoved down our throats — it’s a great story and all, but it makes me want to hurl sometimes.)
“It’s got the makings to be something special, but I still have to go out and perform and play some of my best golf,” said Mickelson.
***Shuttle bus time: More to come. In the meantime, read my Twitter feed.***
Best Storyline: Forget Phil! You know what really would be a feel-good storyline? If 46-year-old Steve Stricker won his first major.
At the first tournament of the season, Stricker announced he was going into semi-retirement, meaning he would only play in the majors, WGCs and a select few regular PGA Tour events, to spend more time with his family. Prior to the U.S. Open, he had only made six starts in 2013, three of which he placed in the top-five. Clearly, that’s been his problem the last few years: He was playing too much competitive golf!
“I really didn’t know what to expect coming into this week,” said Stricker. “Last time played was PLAYERS Championship a month ago, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been playing well at home, been hitting it well at home, but that’s home, it’s not out here.
“But I just figured that I’m in a good place mentally, I feel like I’m doing the right thing by not playing. I’m enjoying my time at home, so it all makes sense in my mind and I guess that’s the most important thing. And I’m happy the way I’m striking it. Couple loose shots today that I’m not so happy with, but overall it just justifies what I’m doing and especially when I play well.”
Stricker shot even-par 70, with a double-bogey on the par-3 9th, but otherwise, he was flawless. On the par-4 risk-reward 10th, he pulled out driver to go for the green and succeeded (such a savage!), two-putting for birdie. He made a 12-footer on the mammoth 521-yard par-4 18th to save par and post two-under on the back nine.
What would it mean to become the oldest player to win a U.S. Open? Well, it’d be huge, obviously.
“Well, it would mean a lot,” said Stricker. “It really would. But it’s going to be a challenge tomorrow. I’m not the longest hitter in the field. There’s some holes out here that I have to really work hard to make pars on.”
Playing less and spending more time with his family has taken some of the pressure off because, well, frankly, it lowers your expectations.
“That’s what I said coming in here,” he said. “I really wasn’t all that nervous today. I was excited, I was happy to be in the position I was in. But, yeah, I didn’t really know what to expect coming into here. I’ve been playing well and I’ve had a good year so far. I’ve been in contention in a lot of tournaments. So I’ve got confidence, guess I should say. But I just still didn’t know how I was going to play. I’m pleasantly surprised and happy that I’m playing well and it shows that I can do this. That I can take this time off and still be competitive.”
Stricker has won dozens of tournaments, but he still cries every time. If he pulls it off tomorrow, I’m pretty sure there won’t be a dry eye at Merion.
Sergio Garcia had an eventful day. He had a sextuple-bogey on no. 15 and a fan yelled “fried chicken” as he was teeing off.
Sergio would like Philly hecklers to be more creative with their comments.
Q. What are your thoughts on Philadelphia and the fans.
SERGIO GARCIA: They’ve been good.
Q. Once on television we heard a fan yell out something. Were you mentally prepared for dealing with anything from the fans?
SERGIO GARCIA: Yeah, I think that it was a possibility. Like I said on the first day, for the most part they’ve been very good. Obviously there’s a little group that are trying to be funny and stand out. And they shout a little bit louder than the rest.
But the only thing I have to say is they’re not very, how you say it, like the things they yell, they’re very common. They’re not very creative, how may I say?
Garcia, who teed off no. 11, rallied and shot five-over 75.
Meanwhile, his nemesis Tiger Woods shot 76.