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ARDMORE, Pa. —  Major championships in golf are won by a combination of skill, endurance, patience, mental control, and inevitably some good breaks from the golf gods.  If there is a soft spot in the hearts of the generally cruel and unforgiving golf gods, they’ve got to be looking out for Phil Mickelson this Father’s Day at Merion as he tries to shed his “always a bridesmaid never a bride” relationship with our national championship.

After all, here is a guy who probably wants to win a U.S. Open more than anyone but chose to spend Wednesday attending his daughter’s eighth grade graduation in San Diego before catching an overnight flight to make his Thursday tee time.   If today is about family, it would be only fitting for Mickelson to hoist the trophy and bury all the painful memories of his close encounters with victory at the Open, such as at Winged Foot in 2006 when he abdicated the crown with his disastrous double bogey on 18.

Yesterday on Merion’s historic and fearsome East Course, which this week has dispelled any doubts that it can still test the best players in the modern game, Mickelson displayed the type of tenacity and patience that is required to prevail under U.S. Open conditions.   Teeing off tied for the lead, he promptly dropped two strokes to par on the first five holes, but steadied himself on the back nine with two birdies to finish with an even par 70 that was good enough for a one-stroke lead over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel, and Steve Stricker going into today’s final round.

Mickelson’s 4-iron on the demanding 253-yard par-3 17th hole might have been the shot of the week, bisecting the green and curling to 10 feet below the hole.  He drained the uphill birdie putt to enormous roars of the huge crowed in the amphitheater setting.   Mickelson admitted he was just hoping to hit the green and make par.   “But the 4-iron, I just stood there and admired it, it was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” he said.  “It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it.  And it was – that was fun to do because that’s just not where you expect to get one back.”  The 17th hole has seen far more bogeys (114) than birdies (17) this week.

Mickelson loves the East Course and sounded excited about Sunday.   “It’s going to be a fun day tomorrow,” he said.  “I’m really looking forward to facing the challenge of Merion again.  It’s a wonderful test.”

Mickelson has led the Open after 54 holes more than once and come up short, but does not seem burdened by the Opens that got away.  “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 heartbreaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide.   But I feel better equipped than I ever have 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.”

Luke Donald, who is seeking his first major, held the lead for much of the day and probably wishes he could replay holes 17 and 18.  He bogeyed 17 after pushing his 2-iron into the rough right of the green, then doubled 18 after another pushed 2-iron found the extremely deep rough short of the green.  Donald hacked the ball across the green into more rough, pitched on, and two-putted.   “The rough has been tough this week, but I’ve never seen a lie like that,” he said.  “I should have done better,” he commented about his closing holes.  “It was disappointing.  But I’ll take the positives out of today, a really solid 16 holes of golf that I played and I’m only two back.”

Mickelson will be paired today with Hunter Mahan, who shot a 1-under par 69.  The two are good friends and former Ryder Cup teammates.  “Have the opportunity to play with a friend of mine, Hunter Mahan, and his caddie Woody is a great friend of Bones [Mickelson’s caddie] and I and it should be a good day,” said Mickelson.   Like Donald, Mahan stumbled at the end with bogeys on 17 and 18.  “Yeah those last two holes are the hardest holes on the course probably, so I did a lot of good things today,” he said.  “I hung in there for a while then had a good stretch, so hit a lot of good shots.  And it’s a tough place.  You really can’t be upset at shooting under par.”

Stricker, who at age 46 has a chance to become the oldest player to win the U.S. Open, might also be a favorite of the golf gods this Father’s Day for placing family ahead of golf.  Stricker is playing a reduced schedule this year to allow more time with his family, but his lack of competitive golf does not seem to be having any deleterious effects this week.   Like Mickelson, Stricker stumbled with a double bogey on the front nine but rallied with two birdies on the back.  “But I just figured I’m in a good place mentally, I feel like I’m doing the right thing by not playing,” he said.  “I’m enjoying my time at home, so it all makes sense in my mind and I guess that’s the most important thing.  And I’m happy with the way I’m striking it.”

Rickie Fowler had the low round of the day, turning in a 3-under par 67 to move within four strokes of the lead.   “Finally just pieced everything together,” he said.  “I swung it well, drove it a little better, and stayed out of the rough as much as possible.”

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have become compatible partners, but yesterday was not one of their most enjoyable outings.   Woods soared to a 76 and McIlroy posted a 75 as the number one and two players in the world shot themselves out of contention.   This continues the trend in recent years of Woods being in position in majors but playing poorly on the weekend.   He has been troubled by a sore left elbow, but refuses to discuss the injury.

Woods lamented that his putter was not sharp.  “No, I just didn’t make anything today.  I just couldn’t get a feel for them, some putts were slow, some were fast and I had a tough time getting my speed right,” he said.  He commented that this is as penal a U.S. Open set-up as he has ever seen.   “Most definitely.  Because of the pins, I think.”

McIlroy concurred that Merion is unforgiving.  “If you’re just not a hundred percent on top of your game, it’s going to expose some of your flaws and weaknesses,” he said.   McIlroy has struggled this year, and was asked what is missing in his game.  “I think it’s confidence and fluidity,” he said.  “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 it sort of – I guess that it sort of makes you lose confidence a little bit during the round.”

The truth is, no one’s game has been looking picture-perfect on the demanding East Course this week, which punishes errant shots in the rough and poor positioning on the greens.   But the U.S. Open has never been about grace and beauty.  It’s about tenacity, endurance, and mental toughness.   As the leaders prepare to tee off this afternoon at Merion, the golf gods will be watching.  And possibly favoring Mickelson and Stricker, the consummate family men, on Father’s Day.

Jack Ross, a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly, is on-site at Merion this week.

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