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Phil Mickelson makes some noise for U.S. Open lead

Birdie on the tough 17th hole propels Mickelson into a one-shot edge over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker at Merion.

June 15, 2013|By Mark Wogenrich
  • Phil Mickelson reacts to the gallery after making a birdie putt at No. 17 on Saturday during the third round of the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.
Phil Mickelson reacts to the gallery after making a birdie putt at No. 17… (Paul Buck / EPA )

ARDMORE, Pa. -- The 17th green at Merion Golf Club sits in a quiet corner of the course, where the driving range and commuter trains normally provide the only background noise.

Onto this spot, the U.S. Golf Assn. built two grandstands, one towering three stories over the green, to accommodate more than 5,000 spectators. Knowing that, Sean Palmer, Merion's first assistant golf pro, said before the U.S. Open that this would be the loudest place on the course.

And still, the piercing roar that followed Phil Mickelson's birdie putt at the par-three hole was overwhelming. The canyon of noise carried Mickelson into sole possession of the lead entering Sunday's final round, which even a bogey at the 18th couldn't change.

"I love being in the thick of it," said Mickelson, chasing his first U.S. Open title after five runner-up finishes. "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."

Mickelson, who shot an even-par 70, begins the final round at one-under 209 with a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker, all of whom shot par or better. Another 11 players are within six shots of the lead.

"One or two shots on this golf course can disappear in a heartbeat," said Justin Rose, who is at one over. "There's a lot of momentum swings out here."

Luke Donald can attest to that. The onetime leader, who was two under at one point, finished bogey-double bogey to fall into a tie with Rose and Billy Horschel.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, the world's top-ranked golfers, generated no momentum and are a combined 17 over for the week. McIlroy made seven bogeys in a third-round 75 that saw him slip from contention.

Woods, who is nine over, followed a birdie on No. 1 with seven bogeys to shoot 76, tied for his highest U.S. Open round as a pro.

"It is certainly frustrating because I was feeling like I was playing well this week," Woods said. "I just didn't make the putts I needed to make."

Mickelson is definitely playing well, and that was most evident at No. 17, a hole that played to 254 yards. Mickelson hit a four-iron to within 10 feet, a shot he said he "stood there and admired."

Mickelson, who turns 43 on Sunday, really hasn't been in this position since 2009, when he made an electrifying eagle at No. 13 at Bethpage Black. He gave back the lead with bogeys in two of the next four holes, and Lucas Glover took the trophy.

Then there were the trash can and corporate tent he hit on the last two holes at Winged Foot in 2006, helping open the door for Geoff Ogilvy's victory. Two years before that, Mickelson three-putted late on a furiously slick Shinnecock Hills green, and Retief Goosen slipped past him for the victory.

Payne Stewart's memorable win over Mickelson in 1999 started Lefty's run of star-crossed Opens. One day later, Mickelson's first child, Amanda, was born. Last week, Mickelson flew home to California for Amanda's eighth-grade graduation ceremony.

Mickelson will play with Mahan, who has only one top-10 finish at the U.S. Open in seven tries. And yet he might have held the outright lead if not for back-to-back bogeys at the closing holes.

"Those last two holes are the hardest holes on the course, probably, so I did a lot of good things today," Mahan said. "I hung in there for a while, then had a good stretch, so I hit a lot of good shots. And it's a tough place. You really can't be upset at shooting under par."

mwogenrich@mcall.com

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