Sundays at the U.S. Open usually provide a definitive clarity, but the fourth day of golf at Bethpage Black was just another exercise in uncertainty.
The restart of the stop-and-go third round was delayed four and a half hours and then finally completed late Sunday afternoon. The two untested youngsters atop the leader board at the start of the day surprisingly stayed in place, as Ricky Barnes and Lucas Glover each shot even-par 70s that were anything but routine.
The people's choice, Phil Mickelson, fired a spirited 69 to surge into a four-way tie for third and will begin Monday's 9 a.m. restart at two under, five strokes behind Barnes and Glover, which sounds like a lot but for the fact that Barnes has never won a meaningful tournament as a professional and Glover's only PGA Tour victory came way back in 2005.
Also on the leader board are two potential stories for the ages. Rising star Sean O'Hair, whose wife is due to give birth any minute now, stands at one over after four holes. David Duval, the 882nd-ranked player in the world, has played some of the most solid, consistent golf of anyone in the field and is tied for third with Mickelson, Hunter Mahan and Ross Fisher.
Two shots behind them at even par lurked Tiger Woods, who had played seven holes of the fourth round on Sunday night. He gained some momentum by draining a birdie putt on the par-4 seventh hole in the dark, after the horn had sounded.
Just when the third round had helped to clarify some of the subplots, the fourth round began in the evening gloaming. Starting a fresh round at 5:30 p.m. would be strange in any other week, but all of the disjointed days have turned this Open into a one-joke movie. "It's Groundhog Day," said Duval, who began his fourth round at 7:06 p.m. and squeezed in two-and-a-half holes before being halted by darkness.
The only significant development of the evening session was Barnes's utter shakiness, as he made a mess of the first hole while taking bogey, then followed with a screaming hook off the second tee into knee-high weeds. Just then play was halted and young Ricky staggered away, saved by the horn. Given that his third round had ended with a badly missed short putt on the 18th hole, you can be sure Barnes's short night of sleep will be fitful at best.
Co-leader Glover looks a little more solid. A bogey-double bogey-bogey stretch on the front nine of his third round had him six behind Barnes, but Glover clawed his way back into the tournament with a dazzling back-nine 32. Asked about the crowd support for Barnes, his charismatic playing partner, Glover said, "I don't think there's very many people that think I can or will [win], so that's fine."
And what do you think, Lucas?
"That's my opinion, and I'll keep it."
The most buoyant player at the end of Sunday's slog had to be Mickelson, whose 69 included four birdies in the final six holes. He now has crept to the precipice of what would be the most emotional victory of a drama-filled career, and while a five-stroke deficit is not nothing, Mickelson has no other superstar ahead of him on the leader board and he knows it. As he said after the third round, "Heading into the last 18 holes I feel like if I can get a hot round going I can make up the difference."
Two solid pars in the twilight didn't hurt Mickelson's cause. Even though this constituted the beginnings of the final round of our national championship, the atmosphere was strangely lacking in tension, more akin to a Thursday or Friday vibe. The hope is that the Monday finish will crackle with Sunday drama. Either way, the winner will be thrilled and everyone else will just be glad the damn thing is finally over.