ARDMORE, Pa. – Phil Mickelson is all alone now.
All alone in the lead, all alone within reach of his greatest professional dream.
He is one shot clear of every other golfer still standing at the 113th U.S. Open. He is the only player still under par for the tournament, at minus-1.
Sunday is a day he will remember for the rest of his life – win or lose.
Sunday is Father's Day.
Sunday is his 43rd birthday.
"It's going to be a fun day tomorrow," Mickelson said Saturday evening with that knowing grin. "It's got the makings to be something special, but I still have to go out and perform and play some of my best golf."
Tiger Woods is out of it. Rory McIlroy is out of it. Every other major winner is out of it, except for Charles Schwartzel, one stroke behind.
Very few viewers will tune in Sunday to watch Schwartzel. Sunday will be all about Mickelson – every shot, every expression. Five times he's almost won the U.S. Open. Five times he's finished second. That's a record, though not one to be proud of without a victory.
So it sets up like this: On Sunday evening, Mickelson will either feel like a world hero or the loneliest man on Earth. It will either all come together for him, or it will all fall apart.
It's been a different Mickelson all week here at Merion Golf Club. Absent is not only his driver, but his swashbuckling bravado. He's been Fairway Phil, hitting eight straight to close his even-par third round. Even when the course dangled temptation in front of him, he resisted.
On 10, with the tees moved up Saturday to the front box and the pin set close to the front of the green, the Par 4 played only 280 yards. Mickelson has the distance to drive the green. (For context, he had 274 yards to the pin on his final approach at 18 and slammed it to the far back rough.) So there it was: a chance to putt for eagle on a course where birdies are rare. Hell, it was a chance for a double-eagle with the hole looming there like an open purse in front of a pickpocket. Even the USGA release announcing the course set up called it "an opportunity to drive the green."
And what did Mickelson do?
He laid up and made birdie.
That's been the game plan all week for Mickelson. "Be patient," he said, "and not force the issue." On Tuesday night, a bunch of PGA Tour caddies were out at a bar decompressing with some of the Merion Golf Club staff. Chandler Withington, a long-time pro here, heard Mickelson's caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, say his boss' cross-country flights home to see his daughter, Amanda, didn't worry him at all.
"We're going to be fine," Mackay said. "We've picked our lines."
It was really as simple as that. The pair had a plan for each fairway, they would stick to it, and they would not overthink on a course that all but begs a golfer to overthink. The man they call Lefty had an advantage going in, as the course favors southpaws. Several holes force righties to fade the ball into tight fairways, where Mickelson can play a much more comfortable draw. So he and Bones knew birdie chances would come if par chances didn't deteriorate into bogeys or worse.
It's worked. Mickelson's best holes have come from playing it safe and getting pleasant surprises. The 17th, a ridiculously long par 3 at 254 yards Saturday, was so damn-near-impossible to birdie that most players used woods off the tee and Ernie Els hooked his drive into the grandstand.
"I'm thinking three," Mickelson said. "Hit the green and make par."
Not exactly a gambler's mentality, which Mickelson is known to incorporate.
So what happened? Mickelson pulled a 4-iron, gave it a rip, and was shocked to see the ball roll into birdie range.
"It was one of the best shots I've ever hit," he said.
The crowd, who had spent all day wincing and groaning and occasionally snickering at an array of misfires that must have looked like lawn darts tossed by a drunkard, detonated in cheers when Mickelson drained the putt to go to 2-under.
Then, Mickelson stepped to the 18th tee and used a four-wood to send his final drive just to the top of the hill in the distance. The crowd erupted again.
Even after all that, with every reason to get to bed on the night before the biggest day of his professional life, he stood in the darkness of the Pennsylvania evening to sign autographs for sunbaked fans.
It was the best of old Phil, and the best of new Phil. We've seen that for three straight rounds now. If we see that on Sunday, on his birthday, on Father's Day, we'll finally see old Phil and new Phil, alone with his long-sought U.S. Open trophy.
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