In the days before the 113th U.S. Open, Mickelson flew home to watch Amanda give an address at her eighth-grade graduation. He returned, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, to take the first-round lead. Sunday, he will rise on Father’s Day, which happens to be his 43rd birthday, and try to make up, in one day, for all his what-was-he-thinking moments in this tournament. With 18 holes to go, Mickelson leads a U.S. Open that he made about one person — Phil Mickelson — from the moment he decided to get on that private jet.
“I love being in the thick of it,” Mickelson said.
That is so Phil, to sense the thrills, disregard the heartache — and want more. His even-par 70 on Saturday left him at 1-under-par 209 for the tournament, a shot ahead of Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker, two better than Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Billy Horschel.
He is the only player under par. And he is the only player with such a tortuous relationship with the Open. Pinehurst was one thing, coming when he was in his 20s and on the rise. But there is, too, Bethpage and Shinnecock and Bethpage again. And Winged Foot. Goodness, there is Winged Foot, in 2006 — the par he needed to win, the drive he hit left, the shot he tried to play through the trees, the double bogey he turned in to lose. Five times, he has been runner-up.
“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,” Mickelson said. “But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open.”
So he is, without question, this tournament’s leading man. Schwartzel, a one-time Masters champ from South Africa, led much of the day, and Donald, a former world No. 1 from England, joined him there. But when Mickelson made back-to-back birdies at 10 and 11, he smiled broadly and made the Open about him again.
“The fact that I was two over early, I had to be really patient not to force the issue and fight for a lot of pars out there,” Mickelson said, “and take advantage of a few birdie opportunities.”
Whatever happens Sunday, it is clear that Merion and the USGA have combined to reinvent the U.S. Open. In 2010, Graeme McDowell made just one final-round birdie to win at Pebble Beach. In 2012, Webb Simpson plodded his way to eight straight pars to finish, and took the trophy when McDowell and Jim Furyk fell aside over the final six holes at Olympic. Those are the scenarios that are supposed to characterize the Open.
But Saturday gave an indication that the champion at Merion, whoever it is, will not be able to trudge his way to victory. The course is devious, to be sure, but Merion is not here just to crush souls. It provides opportunity, too, which makes it more tantalizing.
“I’ve appreciated the fact that there are some birdie holes,” Mickelson said. The seven players 1 over or better headed into Sunday combined for 21 third-round birdies. Par is still your friend, sure, but you best make buddies with birdie, too, or you stand no chance.
The difficulty, though, will be the two finishing holes. Number 17 at Merion is a par 3 almost in name only. It played Saturday at 254 yards, and boasts a bunker-and-fescue-guarded green as complicated as a Rubik’s Cube. The finishing hole, home to the plaque that marks Ben Hogan’s 1-iron from 1950, played from 530 yards Saturday — the back tee. It is a par 4.
“It’s the teeth of the course,” Mahan said.
Of those players 1 over or better, Donald, Mahan, Schwartzel and Rose all bogeyed 17. Mickelson, though, somehow covered those 254 yards with a 4-iron struck so confidently it virtually puffed out its chest.
“It was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” Mickelson said.
At that point Donald, who joined Mickelson and Horschel in the final group, was in a front right bunker, owning the lead by himself at 2 under. A superb short-game player, Donald couldn’t get up-and-down. He fell back to 1-under.
“I should have done better,” Donald said, and the moment grew worse when Mickelson delivered the 12-footer for birdie to the bottom of the cup. The crowd in the massive grandstand behind the green stood as one. They could feel it, because Phil was feeling it. Mickelson, at 2 under, led alone.
Mahan, Schwartzel and Rose all had preceded Mickelson to 18, and all had made bogey. The hole did not yield a birdie for the entire round, and Mickelson hit his drive curiously short, then rocketed his approach through the green. It became his only bogey on the back side. But because Donald, playing in Mickelson’s group, made double, Mickelson headed off, still the leader alone — taking that baggage to bed, and bringing it back in the morning.
“This is a tournament for years I’ve had opportunities, I’ve come close to,” Mickelson said, “and it would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf.”
So watch. That Open history? It all happened. It’s part of him. He will, on Sunday, either flip the narrative or lengthen it in a tournament that has been about him from the start.