ARDMORE, Pa. — It took 5½ hours for Phil Mickelson to secure the pole position for today's U.S. Open finish, which is nothing compared with how long he has pined for a victory in this national championship.
Mickelson played his first U.S. Open as an amateur in 1990 and finished 29th. In 21 subsequent starts, he has finished runnerup a record five times. With a round of par 70 Saturday, Mickelson took the 54-hole lead at Merion Golf Club at 1-under 209. He was the only player under par.
"I can't wait to get back out playing," said Mickelson, whose 43rd birthday is today. "I feel really good ball striking, I feel good on the greens, and I think that it's going take an under-par round (today).
"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."
Only once before, in 2006 when he recorded one of his second-place finishes, has Mickelson held the 54-hole lead in this tournament. In that final round, he had a one-stroke lead with one hole to play, hit a wild drive and then a worse second shot on his way to double bogey and a one-stroke loss to Geoff Ogilvy.
"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 ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open."
Mickelson had a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan (69), Charl Schwartzel (69) and Steve Stricker (70).
Former Gator Billy Horschel, who was tied with Mickelson for the lead at 1 under at the end of the rain-delayed second round Saturday, shot 72. The 26-year-old was two shots behind with Luke Donald (71) and Justin Rose (71).
Saturday was more about weeding out the pretenders for this Open, and two of them turned out to be Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. They started the third round four shots out of the lead. But McIlroy finished with 5-over 75, Woods with 76, matching his worst U.S. Open score as a pro.
"I didn't make anything," Woods said.
Said McIlroy, "I guess I was missing my woods right and my irons left. So it was a bit of a weird one (Saturday)."
For nine holes, Mickelson struggled to get his game going. But he birdied Nos. 10 and 11 to get back to par on his third round, made par on the next five holes and went to 17 a stroke behind playing partner Donald.
Mickelson struck a 4-iron into the majestic par 3 that sailed over the quarry, landed in the middle of the green and rolled to within 8 feet of the pin as the grandstands erupted.
"I just stood there and admired it," he said of his shot. "It was one of the best shots I've ever hit.
"On the tee, I'm just thinking 3. I just want to hit the green and make par and see if I can make a putt. … It was just right down the center of the green, and I was hoping it would get the right bounces and so forth. And it did. It left me a beautiful putt that I could be aggressive with, and I made it."
It ended up being a two-stroke swing after Donald bogeyed the hole.
Only nine players were within five shots of Mickelson entering the final round. Other than Mickelson, the other challengers had combined for one major: Schwartzel's win in the 2011 Masters.
Schwartzel gained the lead Saturday with birdie at No. 10 and was joined in first by Donald and, later, Mahan. But Schwartzel and Mahan bogeyed their last two holes, and Donald finished bogey-double bogey.
"Whenever you shoot under par on Saturday at the U.S. Open, you can't be too disappointed," Schwartzel said. "Anything under par is fantastic here."