Phil Mickelson is on track to end a lifetime of heartbreak in the US Open after a battling 70 gave a one stroke lead heading into the final round on his 43rd birthday.
With five runner up finishes in the event, the left-hander knows he can also celebrate Father’s Day in unforgettable fashion after a gritty third round performance left him the only man in red figures on one-under par.
Despite a closing bogey, the four-time major winner is one stroke ahead of Hunter Mahan (69), Charl Schwartzel (69) and Steve Stricker (70) on a day of scorching sunshine and even hotter tempers as the old East Course burned away the title contenders one by one.
Justin Rose (71), Luke Donald (71) and Billy Horschel (72) are just two strokes behind on one over with Jason Day (68) lurking dangerously, three behind on two over. Then there’s Rickie Fowler, four off the pace on three over after a joint best of the week 67.
Wide open on paper with just six strokes cover the top 15, the reality is that the script appears to have been written specifically for Mickelson, who has revelled in the conditions.
He took the 54-hole lead in some style, patiently clawing his way back from early bogeys at the third and fifth with birdies at the 10th, 11th and 17th before failing to get up and down for par from the back of the 530-yard 18th.
“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 heart breaking 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.”
He has US Open scar tissue but that’s may help him more than hinder him in the heat of battle.
“I don’t think I feel any more pressure than anybody else who wants to win the Tournament, a Major Championship, the U.S. Open,” said Mickelson, who is playing with five wedges and no driver this week in an attempt to surgically carve a path through the Merion minefield.
“But it would certainly mean a lot to me that this is a tournament for years I’ve had opportunities, I’ve come close to, and it would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf. Certainly if I can play the way I have been.”
As Mickelson rose to the occasion, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington were just two more mice caught in a sophisticated mental and physical mousetrap as their title challenges collapsed with third round 75s.
The USGA has turned the 6,996 yard classic into a subtle but deadly trap for the game’s elite by playing on their worst fears.
By deliberately narrowing fairways to rein in the big-hitter and re-shaping the corridors to force players to play away from the ideal line and towards trouble, US Open set-up guru Mike Davis came out on top in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
McIlroy was never quite playing well enough coming into the event and his 75 left him nine shots adrift of Mickelson on eight over with Harrington a shot further back after a triple bogey seven at the 14th derailed a challenge that was never quite chugging along at full tilt in the first place.
The young Ulsterman was never quite straight enough off the tee to avoid the four inch primary rough or putting well enough to take his chances or save himself when he made mistakes.
Add to that the slick greens and some fiendish pin positions and it was mission impossible for the world No 2, especially alongside a mentally scarred Woods, who appears to have lost his magical touch in the majors.
Now winless for five full years in the majors, Woods followed an opening birdie three with a rash of bogeys, eventually taking 36 putts in a 76 that left him alongside Harrington in joint 31st on nine over.
“If you’re not on your game a hundred percent, you get on the wrong side of the greens and it’s just freighting because I didn’t feel like I played too badly,” said McIlroy, who hit 11 of 14 fairways, 11 greens and took 32 putts.
“I missed a few shots here and there, and I was trying on every shot out there and I was trying to get myself back into it, but it’s tough. If you’re just not a hundred percent on top of your game, it’s going to expose some of your flaws or weaknesses.”
McIlroy got his day off to the perfect start when he birdied the opening hole on a scorching Pennsylvania afternoon.
But he was soon on the defensive when he carved his tee shot out of bounds into a back garden at the par-five second and made the first of four bogeys in five holes.
The 24-year old reloaded and hit a fine third to the fairway but while his fourth sailed long and left, he hit a great pitch four feet above the cup and saved bogey.
Battling to regain his composure, his three-iron came up short at the 256-yard third but he couldn’t convert an eight footer for par.
The par-five fourth was on in two yesterday as it played downwind but McIlroy missed the fairway again and had to settle for par.
Another missed fairway led to a bogey at the tough fifth and while he hit just his second fairway of the day at the sixth, he pulled his 190-yard approach and missed an eight footer for par.
Woods had also followed a birdie at the first with bogeys at the third, fifth and sixth before sprinkling in further bogeys at the 10th, 12th, 16th and 18th.
Q. Do you have a feeling for why you are not putting as well you did five, six, seven years ago?
TIGER WOODS: I think I was leading the TOUR the last couple weeks. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Q. Well, but at Majors you’re not putting at Majors as well as you used to, do you feel?
TIGER WOODS: Yeah.
“The first two days, I had like three 3‑putts and I was four shots off the lead, and I missed a boatload of putts within 10 feet. So I really wasn’t that far off. If I clean up the round and don’t 3‑putt, I’m one shot back starting out today. So it just basically I just didn’t have the speed right this week and it certainly showed.”
While McIlroy birdied the short, par-four seventh from nine feet and pumped his fist in celebration, he was six behind leaders John Senden, Justin Rose and Luke Donald at that stage.
Bogeys at the ninth and 11th ended his remote title hopes and he would drop another shot at the 15th before finishing with three straight pars.
Asked what was missing from his game, McIlroy said: “I think it’s confidence and fluidity. I don’t have any other way to explain it.
“I’ve been working on the swing quite hard over the last few months, and it looks really good on camera. I just get on the course and I hit a couple of bad shots and I guess that it sort of makes you lose confidence a little bit during the round.
“But I don’t know, it’s just, yeah, it’s just a bit of a struggle and it seems like if I’ve had a few 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.”
Harrington started by missing a five footer for birdie at the first but while he birdied the second from 35 feet and chiseled out six straight pars, he bogeyed the long par-three ninth when he carved his long-iron into the right rough and under-read a right to left six footer for par.
His group had lost a hole on the group in front by the time they reached the 11th and they were put the clock by referee John Paramor.
Unnerved or not - he claimed it was just a routine gee up - Harrington bogeyed the hole to slip six behind and his title challenge eventually evaporated with a triple bogey seven on tough par-four 14th.
The three-time major winner hooked his tee shot out of bounds and went on to drop another shot at the 18th in a homeward 39.
“Obviously it was going nicely for eight holes, which is kind of the start that isn’t so bad,” Harrington said. “You need to get a few in the bank for the last couple of holes in there. I was disappointed.
“I hit a nice shot into 11, I walked off with bogey. And then missed a chance on 13. Hit a bad drive on 14. I ended up making a great seven, and straight home from there….
“I hit a hook off the tee. It was probably blowing as hard at that stage, and it went out of bounds. And then I hit the next one basically unplayable on the right.
“I was pretty confident getting on the tee box. If I wasn’t confident, maybe I could have hit two three‑woods to it or something like that. But I presume it’s probably the toughest hole today. It certainly felt that way to me.”
While the admits the course is set up for a US Open and playing harder that it does when set up for the members, Harrington does not believe it has been tricked up by the USGA any more than any other US Open venue.
“I would suggest that it would have been interesting if it was firm and fast,” Harrington said. “I think it’s playing quite nice as it is. If you’re on top of your game, I think this is a pretty reasonable challenge.
“I’m disappointed that I haven’t played better, because I think level par has a great chance of winning, and I don’t see it as being an unrealistic score. No, I don’t think it’s tricked up, no.
“I think probably the greatest lesson we all got was when we played Torrey Pines and level par was the winning score, around level par. If it was a regular PGA tournament, it would have been a dozen under, at least. I’ve got to say it’s the same thing here. If this is a regular TOUR event, we’d be doing better.
“The U.S. Open just seems to intimidate… Players are hitting shots they wouldn’t normally hit because the U.S. Open makes them afraid of making mistakes.
“I’ve played this golf course a number of times in the last couple of years. I know that people would say to you, is there any advantage coming to play this course maybe in the last couple of years. No, when you turn up, you’re going to be presented with a U.S. Open golf course, which is a big test with the several par‑3s that are a 3‑wood.
“You’ve got a lot of big holes, a lot of tough stuff out there. And I don’t think the rough is that heavy. You can definitely pull a lie in the rough and play it. It’s more the players than the course.”
Meanwhile, Waterford amateur Kevin Phelan dropped seven shots in his first eight holes having started on the terrifying back nine.
But he played his last 10 holes in one over by following bogeys at the fifth and seventh with a birdie at the eighth for a 78 that left him tied for 65th in the 73-man field on 16 over
As for the leaders, only Stricker and Mickelson managed to play the fearsome last five holes in level par.
Donald bogeyed the 17th and double bogeyed the last for a 71 to slip to two shots behind Mickelson in joint fifth with Billy Horschel (72), Rose (71) who bogeyed the last two.
Mahan and Schwartzel both shots 69s despite closing with two bogeys while Nicolas Colsaerts (74) tangled with a tree and took a seven at the last to slip to 11th on five under alongside Ian Poulter (73) who dropped four shots in his last four holes.
Mickelson was denied on the greens for much of the day but rolled in a 10 footer for a spectacular birdie two at the 17th only to overshoot the 530-yard 18th from 296 yards after hitting four wood off the tee.
Despite his closing bogey, which came when his pitch from claggy rough behind the green came up 15 feet short, the left-hander is up for what will be a hugely demanding final round.
“Given that I’ve had some past Major Championships now and some success here, I feel as well equipped as I could be heading into tomorrow’s final round and I think it’s going to be fun,” Mickelson said.
“I have the opportunity to play with a friend of mine, Hunter Mahan, and his caddie Woody is great friend of Bones and I and it should be a fun day.”