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U.S. Open leader Phil Mickelson poised for ‘something special’

U.S. Open - Round Three

U.S. Open - Round Three

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Date: Sunday.

Site: Merion Golf Club,
Ardmore, Pa.

On TV: Sunday, 11 a.m. to
6:30 p.m., Ch. 5.

Tee times, scores: Page 41.

Updated: July 17, 2013 7:26AM

ARDMORE, Pa. — Is the golf world ready for another Merion moment?

It could happen Sunday. Phil Mickelson — the best (and most popular) player who hasn’t won a U.S. Open, will have a chance to take his place alongside the likes of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan at this historic, quirky and dangerous course outside Philadelphia.

Mickelson put himself in the driver’s seat to end his U.S. Open frustrations with a solid 70 in the third round Saturday. It was highlighted by a stellar birdie with a 4-iron on the into-the-wind, over-the-quarry 17th hole, which was playing 206 yards into a north wind.

That put him at 1-under par, good for a one-shot lead on Hunter Mahan (69), Charl Schwartzel (69) and Steve Stricker (70).

“I love being in the thick of it,’’ said Mickelson. “I’ve had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it’s been heart breaking to come so close and let it slide. But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open.’’

Even though he’s the only golfer under par through three rounds, Mickelson believes an under-par round will be needed. And he believes he can do that.

“My ball striking is better than it’s ever been,’’ he said. “My putting is better than it has been in years, and I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it.’’

At the beginning of the week, the focus was on whether Tiger Woods, who had won four times this season, could end his major drought.

Heading into this final round, the spotlight is on his superstar rival, Mickelson, who will turn 43 on Sunday and receive a Father’s Day salute for taking a cross-country redeye to be at his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation.

Winning the U.S. Open, an event in which he is a five-time runner-up, would complete quite a trifecta.

“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.’’

Doing it on the course where Jones completed his Grand Slam and where Ben Hogan made a triumphant return from a collision that almost cost him his life would be a fitting moment for Mickelson, who has an appreciation for the history of the game he plays.

It won’t be easy. Besides Mahan, Schwartzel and Stricker, three more capable challengers (Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Billy Horschel) are just two shots back.

Donald, who was in command until a couple of bad swings on No. 17 and 18 saw him finish bogey-double bogey, vowed to shake off his bitter third-round finish.

“Both yardages, I had to get a little extra out of the 2‑iron,’’ Donald said. “When I attack too hard, I get out of sync and they go right. I should have done better. 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.

Donald, who is winless in 39 previous major tournaments, has his own demons to conquer.

“I played a solid round today other than those last two holes,’’ he said. “I’ll forget about those two holes and carry on tomorrow.’’

Meanwhile, Woods, who is 10 shots back, won’t have that chance. Once looking like a lock to catch Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors, he will remain stuck on 14.

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