ARDMORE, Pa. -- For all those runner-up finishes, with so much heartache chasing the major he covets, Phil Mickelson has never had a better chance to win the U.S. Open.
It's the first time he has ever had the outright lead going into the final round. Of the nine players within five shots, only one has the experience of winning a major. And Tiger Woods went from contender to middle-of-the-pack by matching his worst U.S. Open score as a pro.
Despite a bogey on the final hole at Merion -- the 18th was so tough it didn't yield a single birdie in the third round -- Mickelson was the sole survivor to par Saturday with an even-par 70 that gave him a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
Mickelson celebrates his 43rd birthday Sunday -- on Father's Day, no less. He left Merion on Monday and didn't return until three hours before his tee time on Thursday so he could attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter.
"It's got the makings to be something special," Mickelson said. "But I still have to go out and perform, and play some of my best golf.”
He has been good enough to play 54 holes in 1-under 209.
And he was close to perfection when he stood on the par-3 17th hole with a 4-iron in his hand, 253 yards away from the orange wicker basket attached to the pin, the signature look at Merion. He was one shot behind Luke Donald until a pure swing and an 8-foot birdie putt gave him the lead.
"I just stood and admired it," Mickelson said. "It was one of the best shots I've ever hit. I mean, it just was right down the center of the green and I was hoping it would kind of get the right bounces. It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it. That was fun to do that because that's just not a hole you expect to get one back.”
Four others players who had been under par late in the round couldn't hang on.
Donald twice made poor swings with a 2-iron, and it cost him three shots. Mahan, Schwartzel and Justin Rose all finished bogey-bogey.
There was trouble everywhere at Merion, and it didn't take much to find it. One swing cost Ian Poulter, who drove out-of-bounds on the 15th. One decision cost Nicolas Colsaerts, who tried to hit a shot under a tree on the 18th and made triple bogey. That left Mickelson alone at the top for only the second time in a major -- he won the 2006 Masters with the lead.
The U.S. Open, however, has been nothing but trouble for Lefty.
"I don't think I feel any more pressure than anybody else who wants to win ... the U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "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.”
Saturday was more about weeding out the pretenders for this U.S. Open -- and one of them turned out to be Woods. He started out just four shots out of the lead, and made a bending, 12-foot birdie putt on the opening hole. It never got any better for the world's No. 1 player. He made seven bogeys the rest of the way and didn't add another birdie. It was the fourth time he shot 76 in the U.S. Open, but never when he started out so close to the lead. Now, he's 10 shots behind.
"It certainly is frustrating," said Woods, who has been stuck on 14 majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. "I'm playing well enough to do it, and unfortunately just haven't gotten it done.”
The final hour might have been a sneak preview for Sunday. At one point, there were five players under par, and suddenly there was only Mickelson.
Donald made double bogey on the 18th hole from the middle of the fairway, trying to swing too hard on a 2-iron to get up the hill and beyond the false front of the green. He wound up in ankle-deep rough, so gnarly that his third shot squirted across the green and into more thick grass.
"I should have done better," Donald said. "It was disappointing, but I'll take the positives out of today -- a really solid 16 holes of golf, and I'm only two back.”
Mahan let his spectacular back nine filled with four birdies go to waste with a bogey-bogey finish for a 69. He will be in the final group for the first time in a major with Mickelson, whom he considers a close friend.
"It's going to be a very, very exciting finish," Mahan said, "because I don't think any lead is safe.”
Stricker made a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole to complete a 70 and perhaps the steadiest round of the day. His only mistake in a round that lasted 5 1/2 hours under sunshine was a tee shot into the water on the par-3 ninth for a double bogey. At 46, Stricker can become the oldest U.S. Open champion.
"I've got to play smart golf ... not make any mistakes," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing. And it's a course where it's tough to come back.”
Billy Horschel, tied with Mickelson at the start of the third round, kept his emotions in check and shot 72. He was two shots behind, along with Donald and Rose
The third round featured so much movement, and so many wild swings, that seven players had a share of the lead at some point. Even though USGA executive director Mike Davis said the course was set up to allow for good scores, this was more about hanging on for dear life.
There was no faking it Saturday afternoon.
Thirty players were separated by only five shots at the start of the third round. By the end of the day, there were just 10 players separated by five shots, including amateur Michael Kim. He was tied for third until losing four shots on the last three holes.
For all the talk about Merion being just a short course, the final two holes were beastly -- 253 yards for a par 3 surrounded by deep bunkers and framed by the Scottish broom grass, and then a 530-yard closing hole up the hill, deep rough on both sides with bogeys or worse waiting for a single missed shot.
Stricker, remarkably, played bogey-free on the back nine. Horschel, striving for perfection at a championship that doesn't allow for it, dropped only one shot.
"Seventeen and 18, you've got to buckle up and hit good shots," Horschel said. "So I think tomorrow, with the pressure being on, those holes will stick out even more.”
Mickelson chose not to carry a driver, and he had to be flawless again on the long closing hole. He swung the 3-wood with confidence throughout the back nine and drilled another. With some 250 yards left, another fairway metal took him just over the green. His chip came out some 10 feet short and he missed the par putt to end a streak of 12 holes without a bogey.
But he still had the lead. It was the first time only one player remained under par through 54 holes at the U.S. Open since 2007 at Oakmont, when there was none. Mickelson was tied for the 54-hole lead at Winged Foot in 2006, where he lost a one-shot lead on the final hole by making double bogey.
Of his five runner-up finishes, that one stung the most.
But he's back for another try to win his national championship. The challenge has never been more severe -- not from any player, but from Merion.
Mickelson has one piece of history working against him. In the four previous U.S. Opens at this classic course, no one with the lead going into the final round has ever gone on to win.
"I love being in the thick of it," Mickelson 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.”