ARDMORE, Pa. — Of all the plotlines that have played out at Merion Golf Club this week, one has firmly emerged, which should make for an entertaining, emotional, and very suspenseful Sunday.
Whoever wins the 113th US Open — with or without an 18-hole playoff, which would come Monday if needed — will become a first-time winner of our national championship. The top 15 names on the leader board, separated by seven shots — have never won the US Open before. You have to go all the way down to Ernie Els, who is tied for 16th at 6 over, to find someone who has.
Plenty of players had at least a share of the lead at one time or another on a topsy-turvy Saturday. The one who had it last was Phil Mickelson, who used a two-shot swing with Luke Donald on the 17th hole to grab the lead for himself. Mickelson rolled in a 12-footer for birdie, while Donald made bogey.
A bogey at the last gave Mickelson a back-nine 32, and his even-par 70 left him right where he started the day, at 1 under par. This time, instead of being tied, he’ll take a one-shot lead over three others — Hunter Mahan (69), Charl Schwartzel (69), and Steve Stricker (70) — into the final round of the US Open, looking for his fifth major championship.
Mickelson has been close before in this event, finishing second at the US Open a record five times. Now he’s perhaps one good round away from winning the tournament he’s always professed to wanting the most.
“I love being in the thick of it. 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,” Mickelson said. “But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a US Open.”
Nobody else is in red figures. Donald had been, until a bogey-double bogey finish dropped him into a tie for fifth and cost him a spot opposite Mickelson in Sunday’s final group. Donald shot 71, opening the door for Mahan to squeeze into the final pairing.
Mickelson, Donald, Mahan, Schwartzel, Justin Rose (71), Billy Horschel (72), and John Senden (74) all held the lead — either shared or outright — at some point during the third round on a course that is proving to be every bit the test the US Golf Association expects from its Open host. Birdies are out there, if you look hard enough, but bogeys, doubles, and worse are much easier to find.
Because Merion hadn’t hosted the US Open since 1981, not many of the players here this week were familiar with it, although Mickelson played here in the 1989 US Amateur. Like most places, it’s a track that requires familiarity: The more times you play it, the more comfortable you become.
After a sluggish start with bogeys on Nos. 3 and 5, Mickelson kick-started his round with a birdie at the 10th, a par-4 that played just 280 yards for the third round. Of the top 10 players on the leader board, nine made birdie there, Horschel the lone exception.
Mickelson added birdies at the 11th and 17th, which put him back into the lead. Even a bogey at the last couldn’t knock Mickelson out of the lead. There was no shame in making 5 at the 18th, though. At 530 yards, it gave up no birdies on the day and played to an average of 4.74. Mahan, Schwartzel, and Rose also made bogey there.
One thing is certain: the streak of every US Open winner at Merion having a 72-hole total seven shots lower than the previous Merion US Open champion will end. From Olin Dutra in 1934 (294) to Ben Hogan in 1950 (287) to Lee Trevino in 1971 (280) to David Graham in 1981 (273), a pattern had developed, one that will not continue.
A tip of the cap to the course, not a knock on the field, is the reason. But there are some near the top who feel confident at Merion.
“I felt like this course suits me pretty well. The US Open does,” said Mahan, whose best finish in a major championship is a tie for sixth, at the 2009 US Open and 2007 British Open. “It’s exciting. I feel like my game’s been good for a while.”
It’ll have to be on Sunday, especially with so many top players in the mix. All will feel pressure, none more than Mickelson, who doesn’t have history on his side. Not only has he never won the US Open, but none of the 54-hole leaders at all four previous US Opens held at Merion went on to win.
Mickelson can become the first, in more ways than one.
“It’s going to be a fun day tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to facing the challenge of Merion again,” Mickelson said. “It’s a wonderful test.”
Whichever name ends up on the trophy won’t care what the final total is. He’ll be the new US Open champion.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.