ARDMORE, Pa. -- Six players within two shots of leader Mickelson
Grumpy old man Merion continued to confound many of the finest players in the world in the third round of the 113th U.S. Open. After a sublime Saturday of bright sun, gentle breezes and many bogeys or worse in bunches, only one player in the remaining frequently flailing field — fabulous Phil Mickelson — was able to finish under par after 54 holes.
A revered but relatively short, rain-softened Open course some believed would fall victim to modern technology and big bombers of the ball instead has become a tortuous test for one and almost all. Still, early in the evening, there was four-time major champion Mickelson, the overwhelming favorite among the boisterous Philadelphia galleries, making a tough 12-foot putt at the 17th hole that assured a one-shot lead in his quest to win his first Open title after a record five second-place finishes.
Mickelson, who celebrates his 43rd birthday on Fathers Day Sunday, came in with a round of even-par 70 that left him at 1-under 209 in a tournament he wants to win more than any other. The lead could have been two, but a poor chip and a missed 10-foot par at the brutally difficult 530-yard, par-4 18th resulted in one last bogey on his card. Still, he walked off the course to a standing ovation from hundreds around the 18th green trying to will that putt into the hole.
His closest pursuers Sunday will be South African Charl Schwartzel (69) and Americans Hunter Mahan (69) and Steve Stricker (70), all at even-par 210. Mahan and Schwartzel held a share of the lead on the back nine, but both faltered with bogeys on their final two holes, as did Englishman Luke Donald, in with a 71. Also tied for the lead at one point, Donald bogeyed 17 and had a double-bogey disaster in the rough at 18, tumbling into a tie for fifth place with countryman Justin Rose (71) and American Billy Horschel (72), the former University of Florida Gator who was tied with Mickelson for the 36-hole lead.
“It’s going to be a fun day,” Mickelson said of Sunday’s final round. “I’m looking forward to facing the challenge of Merion again. It’s a wonderful test. … I like being in the thick of it.”
Slick greens, garden-hose-width fairways, thick ball-burying rough and some pernicious pin placements along with that grinding finishing hole combined to make life miserable for many. Sergio Garcia had a 10 on the 15th hole Saturday with three shots out of bounds, for example, and early starter Shawn Stefani, seventh last week at the Memphis PGA Tour stop, came in with a 15-over 85. Later in the day, there was Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, playing with Garcia and posting an 86.
No one seemed more confounded by the venue than No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods, even if he did make a sharply curling right-to-left 15-foot putt at his first hole for a birdie and a signature fist pump. But Woods bogeyed three of his next five holes, missing a 6-footer for par at the third and a 10-footer at the fifth followed by a dreadful chip at No. 6, and he never did get back on the proper track toward the top.
It kept getting worse from there, and he finished with a 76, his highest third-round score in an Open since he turned professional in 1996 and his third consecutive round in the 70s this week, leaving him at 9-over and 10 shots off the lead. A still-elusive 15th major championship, and his first since 2008, almost certainly won’t happen Sunday, his chances put on hold at least until the British Open at Muirfield next month.
“I didn’t make anything [Saturday],” Woods said. “I just couldn’t get a feel for them. Some putts were slow, some putts were fast, and I had a tough time getting the speed. It is certainly frustrating because I certainly was feeling like I was playing well this week. … I’m playing well enough to do it and unfortunately just haven’t gotten it done.”
Rory McIlroy, No.2 in the world who has played with Woods each of the first three days, was not much better. After starting the day only four shots out of the lead, the lad from Northern Ireland soared to a 75 and was also out of contention at 218, continuing his still-winless, mediocre 2013 play.
“If you’re not on your game a hundred percent, you get on the wrong side of the greens and it’s just frightening because I didn’t feel like I played too badly,” he said. “I’ve had too many tournaments this year where I’ve struggled in one round or a couple of rounds and not been able to put it all together. I don’t feel like it’s too far away at all. It’s just a matter of believing and staying patient and working hard and knowing that you work on the right thing, you’re going to turn it around.”
Mickelson clearly turned it around on his back nine, with three birdies until that final bogey at the 18th. He hit a monster 274-yard 3-wood over the green into deep rough at 18, then left his chip from the strangling spinach 10 feet short. His par putt was a roll short of going in, but Mickelson clearly wasn’t dwelling on that when he walked off the course.
“It’s been so much fun [being in contention in so many past Opens],” Mickelson said. “Even if it’s been heartbreaking to come so close and let it slide. I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I feel as well-equipped as I can be going into [Sunday’s] round. It should be a fun day. … It’s got the makings to be something special, but I still have to go out there and play my best golf.”