Mickelson leads, has one more shot to win Open

Mickelson leads, has one more shot to win Open

June 15, 2013, 10:00 pm

ARDMORE, Pa. -- And here we go again.

Here he sits. Again.

Phil Mickelson, the most successful loser in U.S. Open history, is just 18 holes away from his first U.S. Open victory.

Mickelson fired an even-par 70 on Saturday and will take a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker into Sunday's final round. Six players are within two shots of the lead.

Some of them would make for nice stories.

Justin Rose and Luke Donald, for example, are both 1-over and vying to become the first Englishman since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the Open. Hunter Mahan, who will play in the final group with Mickelson on Sunday, and Billy Horschel are both in search of their first major championship. And the "semi-retired" 46-year-old Steve Stricker would go into the record books as the oldest man to ever win a U.S. Open if he were to do so tomorrow.

But none of those stories come close to Mickelson's.

Of all the names in golf's history, Mickelson's is one of the most synonymous with the Open, and he's never even won it. That's because he owns a record five runner-up finishes and has lost four of those tournaments in truly heartbreaking fashion (see story).

"I love being in the thick of it," he said. "I've had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it's been heartbreaking 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.

"At 43, I feel as good as I've ever felt."

Actually, he's not 43 yet, but he will be on Sunday, his birthday. And appropriately enough, it will also be Father's Day.

Much has been made this week about Mickelson's cross-country trip back to San Diego to see his daughter, Amanda, speak at her eighth-grade graduation. Amanda was born the day after Mickelson's first runner-up finish at the U.S. Open back in 1999, when he was only 29. He carried a beeper with him that week and swore he would withdraw from the tournament if his wife, Amy, went into labor.

But the birth was delayed long enough for Mickelson to make it all the way to the 72nd hole, where Payne Stewart sank a 15-foot par putt to beat him by one. Fourteen years later, Mickelson watched his daughter speak, flew back to Philadelphia, landed at 4:30 a.m., strolled onto the 11th tee box for his 7:11 starting time on Thursday, and has led the tournament ever since.

If he finally pulls through on Sunday, he'll become just the 14th wire-to-wire winner in Open history, joining some pretty impressive names, including Stewart, Jack Nicklaus, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Rory McIlroy, Retief Goosen, who beat him in 2004, and Tiger Woods, who beat him in 2002.

And he would do it all on Father's Day, on his birthday.

"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."

He played some of it on the back nine Saturday, shooting a two-under-par 32 that could have been much lower. He started with birdies at 10 and 11 and nearly had another on the par-4 14th, but his greenside chip ricocheted off one of Merion's unforgiving pins.

On 15 and 16, he had two gorgeous looks at birdie that just burned the edge. He finally found the bottom of the hole on the 246-yard par-3 17th, where a massive 4-iron set him up to make a putt.

"Well, on the tee I'm just thinking three. I just want to hit the green and make par and see if I could make a putt," he said.

"But the 4-iron I hit was -- I just stood there and admired it, it was one of the best shots I've ever hit. ... It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it.  And it was -- that was fun to do that because that's just not a hole you expect to get one back."

One he would give back on the 18th, when a 3-wood from 276 scooted through the back of the green, and Merion's rough stopped his normally spot-on short game when it halted his wedge right after impact. A longer-than-expected par putt came up short and closed his round with a bogey.

"Today I hit a number of good putts that didn't quite go in," he said. "I had opportunities, I mean the putt on last hole, I didn't want to hit it too hard because I thought it would go through the break. I tried to get the right pace and it pulled up right short in the center.

"The one on 16, I couldn't hit a better putt. I was waiting it for it to eke a little bit left at the hole and it never did. And those opportunities will hopefully fall in tomorrow."

Had just one or two -- or even that chip -- fallen in Saturday, he'd have more than a one-shot lead.

"That's true. That's true," he agreed. "I've come very close."

He's come the closest any player can, and he's done it five times. Now he has until his 3:20 p.m. tee time on Sunday to sit around and think about it.

"[I'll] grab a little breakfast. I don't know, just watch some TV, hopefully sleep," Mickelson said, when asked how he'd spend the morning. "But I don't sleep very well during Majors. I'm lucky to get a few, four or five or six hours."

There's a good chance his fans won't sleep very well, either. Just like Mickelson, they've been down this road with him five times before. Per usual, it's likely he'll have the bulk of the 25,500 spectators who pack into Merion Golf Club on Sunday on his side.

All of them will get the chance to see Mickelson take a run at the U.S. Open one more time.