No one has to guess what Phil Mickelson wants for Father’s Day.
After five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, Mickelson positioned himself Saturday to get the trophy he has made no secret he wants most, shooting an even-par 70 to take a one-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round at Merion Golf Club.
With six players within two shots — including Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker, who are all just one back — it figures to be an eventful finale to what has been yet another torturous Open set-up at Merion, where Mickelson emerged as the only player to beat par through 54 holes.
“This is a really hard challenge, but it’s a lot of fun,” said Mickelson, who took a red-eye, cross-country flight before Thursday’s first round because he was in San Diego attending his daughter’s middle-school graduation. “I can’t wait to get back out playing.”
While Mickelson will be seeking his fifth major victory — he has won the Masters three times and the PGA Championship once — pre-tournament favorite Tiger Woods will not be in the hunt for his 15th. Woods posted a 6-over 76 and is 10 shots back, meaning he will have gone a full five years since his last major win at the 2008 Open.
Of Mickelson’s close pursuers, only Palm Beach Gardens resident Schwartzel, the 2010 Masters champ, is a major winner.
Six of the top seven players on the leader board held at least a share of the lead Saturday. Those seven were a combined 9 over on the final two holes, the only birdie coming from Mickelson on the 250-yard par-3 17th, where he hit a 4-iron to 18 feet and rolled in the uphill putt.
“The 4-iron I hit, I just stood there and admired it. It was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” he said. “It was right down the center of the green, and I was hoping it would kind of get the right bounce and it did. (That) left me with a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with, and I made it. That was fun, because that’s not a hole you expect to get one back.”
Mickelson’s round didn’t start well. Tied with former Florida Gator Billy Horschel at the start of the day, he bogeyed Nos. 3 and 5 to slip down into the pack, but birdies at Nos. 10 and 11, short par-4s, got him back in the mix.
Schwartzel, playing ahead of him, and Luke Donald, in Mickelson’s group, both took the lead briefly, but Schwartzel finished bogey-bogey and Donald made a bogey and a double-bogey on the last two holes.
“Whenever you shoot under par on Saturday at the U.S. Open, you can’t be disappointed,” Schwartzel said.
Donald said: “I played a solid round other than those last two holes. Through 16 holes, I could have been 4 or 5 under and really was playing as good golf as I’ve played for a while.”
Horschel, who hit all 18 greens Friday, didn’t come close to that and seemed on the verge of falling out of contention after posting three bogeys and no birdies on the front. But he got his tempo back down the stretch and will start Sunday just two back.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel more comfortable coming from behind. I don’t know why that is. I’ve always been that way.”
Hunter Mahan, meanwhile, stayed under the radar most of the day, but his four birdies (against two bogeys) on the back nine for a 69 put him in the final grouping with Mickelson on Sunday, just one back.
“I hung in there for a while, then had a good stretch, hit a lot of good shots,” he said. “It’s a tough place. You can’t be upset at shooting under par.”
Mickelson said he looked forward not only to the final round but the final pairing.
“I have the opportunity to play with a friend of mine, Hunter Mahan, and his caddie is a great friend of Bones’ (Mickelson’s caddie, Jim Mackay) and it should be a fun day.”
Like Donald, Mickelson said he came close to shooting a round that could have given him breathing room.
“I hit a number of good putts that didn’t quite go in,” he said. “I had opportunities. And those opportunities will hopefully fall in (today), because I’m getting the ball started on the right line with the right pace and I can’t worry about what could be.”
Mickelson, of course, is often reminded of what could have been in those five Opens he’s finished second: 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009. The most hurtful of those has to be 2006 at Winged Foot where, needing only a par at No. 18 to win, he drove the ball into the trees and then, still capable of reaching a playoff with a bogey, finished with double-bogey.
“It would certainly mean a lot to me,” he said. “This is a tournament that for years I’ve had opportunities, I’ve come close, and it would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf.”