ARDMORE, Pa. — This United States Open still looks like the United States Wide Open. It also appears likely that whoever wins it on Sunday is going to have to beat Phil Mickelson to do it.
Only two things are sure so far: One, the Merion Golf Club is still winning this war, as golfers continued to be baffled by its mix of long holes, short holes and perplexing greens. Two, Mickelson, the U.S. Open Heartbreak Kid with a record five runner-up Open finishes, just won’t go away.
A sloppy front-nine where Mickelson proved he could miss fairways with an assortment of clubs in his bag other than driver appeared to all but end his run. Then he reverted back to Phil the Thrill, birdied the first two holes on the back nine and added a heroic birdie at the tough par-3 17th hole to regain a share of the lead.
There were ten players within five shots of Mickelson’s lead after the third round ended. Mickelson regained the lead at one under par, one stroke ahead of Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker. Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Billy Horschel are two back. Jason Day is three behind, one stroke ahead of Rickie Fowler, whose 67 was Saturday’s low round.
Mickelson exuded confidence as he stalked the back nine and he was still feeling good after his round, the third straight day he’s led or had a share of the lead. “I feel better equipped to win an Open now,” Mickelson said. “My ballstriking is better than ever and my putting is better than it’s been in years. I’m feeling great and I love this golf course. At 43, I feel as good as I ever have.”
One other thing was certain after Saturday’s play concluded. Mickelson isn’t going to have to stare down golf’s apparent Big Three. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott are not in the final-round picture because they combined to shoot 27 over par for 54 holes and are out of contention. Woods birdied the opening hole Saturday with an electrifying long putt, then failed to make another birdie. He hit 13 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens but hit few shots close to the hole. Putting from the wrong position on Merion’s greens is a futile task.
“At least I started well,” Woods said. “I just couldn’t get a feel for the greens. Some putts were slow, some were fast and I had a tough time getting my speed right.”
Woods, who finished with 36 putts in the third round, shot 76 to slip to nine over par. McIlroy shot 75 to finish at eight over while Scott posted 73 and fell to 10 over.
“I really wasn’t that far off,” Woods said later. He was talking about his play, not his position. He is far off the lead. Too far.
Merion’s closing holes dramatically altered the jockeying for positions. They did not play nice. The 17th and 18th holes turned into real brutes. The players who finished among the top 10 leaders played those holes in a combined 12 over par in the third round, and that included 17th-hole birdies by Mickelson, who shot 70, and Jason Day.
Make a note. If the finishing holes were this pressure-packed and tough on Saturday, imagine how punishing they’re going to be on Sunday. The 18th hole looms as a terribly easy place to lose the Open. From the 14th hole on, Merion is a challenging gauntlet to run.
“It’s the teeth of the course,” said Mahan, who lost in the Accenture World Match Play final to Matt Kuchar earlier this year. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a very, very exciting finish because I don’t think any lead is safe on those holes. It’s a great finish. The 18th is 530 yards uphill. It’s brutal.”
Mahan and Schwartzel finished bogey-bogey to shoot 69s. Rose did likewise for 71. Henrik Stenson, who was one over par at one point, made back-to-back doubles at 14 and 15 to end up at five over. Michael Kim, an amateur who played in the NCAA Championship for California, enjoyed a four-birdie back nine until he finished bogey, double bogey, bogey, for 71. He’s at four over par.
Stricker, a 46-year-old who has never won a major championship, played a bogey-free back nine and shot 70 after a nice up-and-down for par at the 18th. He had a classic Open charge on the front side, eight straight pars, before pushing a tee shot at the par-3 ninth and making a costly double bogey.
“It’s a long course for me,” said Stricker. “It’s the longest short course I’ve heard of. It’s going to be a challenge tomorrow. I’m not the longest hitter here and there are some holes out here that I have to really work hard on to make pars. But I’m in a good place mentally and I’m happy the way I’m striking it.”
Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts was a lot closer to the lead before he played the 18th, where the tees were all the way back and turned the hole into a par 4 of some 530 yards. His tee shot went under some trees in the left rough. He had a restricted backswing and tried to chip out, but moved the ball only a foot. He advanced it only 40 yards with the next try and before you know it, had a demoralizing double bogey to slip to five over par.
The finishing holes grabbed Donald, perhaps the No. 1 man on your list of the best players who have never won majors. He made bogey out of a greenside bunker at the 17th, then drove into the rough at 18. From there, he could’ve used a Weed Eater. The rough was thick and it got ugly. It turned into a double bogey, a costly finish.
Mickelson, meanwhile, hit a good drive and watched his second shot run off the slope in the back half of the green into the thick rough. His pitch came up well short and his par putt stopped short of the cup, dead in the jaws. Bogey.
Whatever happened to Horschel, the former University of Florida star who got headlines in the second round by earning a share of the lead after hitting all 18 greens in regulation? He didn’t hit 18 on Saturday. Three bogeys on the front nine knocked him off course, although he gamely fought back with a closing 33 to settle for 72 and a tie for fifth. That back-nine rally may prove crucial for Horschel.
“I didn’t have my best stuff today,” he said. “Obviously, I wasn’t going to hit 18 greens like yesterday but I hit the ball well enough to play well. Unfortunately, I putted very badly. I’m still right in it and I’m happy about that.”
So here’s how it stacks up: Among the top 10 on the leaderboard, Mickelson is the only player who has won multiple major championships — three Masters and one PGA.
“I need a good score tomorrow,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know what number that is but I believe I’ve got an under-par round in me tomorrow even with difficult pins and possibly firmer conditions.”
Schwartzel, a former Masters champion, is the only other major winner among the top ten. Does that mean anything for the final round? Maybe, maybe not. But based on three gutsy rounds here, Mickelson is going to have a say in the outcome of this Open.
“It’s got the makings to be something special,” Mickelson added.
It’s Merion. That practically guarantees Sunday is going to be special.