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Philly Mick - Fan Fave Mickelson One Round From U.S. Open Title at Merion

By: Jay Flemma


by Jay Flemma [Cybergolf's Jay Flemma and Marino Parascenzo are in Ardmore, Pa., for this week's U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club. Here's Jay's third installment.]

And now the golf world holds its collective breath.

In his typical mercurial fashion Phil Mickelson, outlasted the field at Merion Golf Club's East Course on Saturday, posted an even-par 70 for a three-day 1-under total. He leads the 113th U.S. Open by a single shot over Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker, and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwatrzel. Justin Rose, Luke Donald, and Billy Hoershel are two back at 1-over.

The defining shot of the day was vintage Mickelson, a time capsule example of why the golf world reveres him as our generation's Arnold Palmer. Staring down the gullet of one of the hardest par-3s in creation, a 246-yard behemoth with a turtle-shell green, rough more unkempt and straggly than a hippie's hair, and a vicious mean streak a mile wide, Phil laser-beamed a 4-iron that was pin-seeking all the way.

"I just stood there and admired it. It's one of the best golf shots I've hit in my life," he confided, smiling in fond remembrance.

The ball took the right bounces and followed the green's contours, finishing exactly where Mickelson hoped it would, in a spot where he had a simple uphill putt. It was a spear right in the fire-breathing dragon's eye. That hole has played the seventh-hardest all week.

Mickelson finds himself in the lead because England's Luke Donald dropped three shots to par over the last two holes, bogeying 17 and doubling 18, turning a 68 into a 71 and what would have been a one-shot lead into a two-shot deficit.

"It was both yardages and fatigue," explained Donald, referring to the 18th hole's gargantuan 530 yards. "I had to get a little extra out of the 2 iron, and my poor swings come when I attack too hard from the top, and I get out of sync . . . and they go right. And, unfortunately, those holes are playing tough."

Between that ghastly finish and Merion's brutishness taxing him to the extreme, Donald looks too volatile to survive the crucible of Championship Sunday. Despite great statistics - he's third in fairways hit, T-25 in greens in regulation, and T-4 in putting, he's also carded 11 bogeys and a double over the course of this tournament. He can't win balancing birdies and bogeys, the USGA. is going to take its foot off the accelerator when it comes to Sunday's set-up. Someone is going to have to make birdies to win that trophy.

"It's been a recent change in thinking by the USGA. In the Tom Meeks era especially the Open had gotten boring: siege, bloodletting, and defensive golf," stated golf expert Bruce Moulton. "But Mike Davis knows that birdies means excitement and great golf shots make iconic moments, so he's letting guys show their skills."

He's right. Last year, Webb Simpson, cooked up a sizzling 68 at Olympic Club, and in 2011 when Rory went out an shattered myriad major records at Congressional, that Sunday saw six of the top-10 finishers shot in the 60s, including 2011 Masters champion Charl Scwartzel, who threw a 66 past a Congressional Country Club Blue course that looked more dazed than a guy who struck out looking three straight times.

Indeed Schwartzel, a South African, and Australia's Jason Day may be the most dangerous names on the leaderboard that looks like an all-star team as they can go low with Phil if they have to.

Schwartzel also suffered the same fate as Donald, dropping out of the lead held for parts of the day with a bogey-bogey finish. Yet he still shot a 1-under 69 to move into contention, and was undaunted by the reversal.

"I think whenever you shoot an under par on Saturday at the U.S. Open, you can't be too disappointed," he stated. "I've got a major under my belt, so I don't have to worry about getting the first one. Obviously you want to get more and more and more, but that monkey is off the shoulder, so I can go ahead and concentrate on trying to finish off a golf tournament."

It was James Bond's creator Ian Fleming who said a man who has nothing to lose has nothing to fear, and he's right. It's then that he's at his most dangerous, and Phil has so much more to lose than Charl or Jason Day or Hunter Mahan, the two other names on the leaderboard most likely to give Phil the stiffest challenge. Mahan has ice water in his veins, so he can handle excruciating pressure. (Interestingly, he leads the field in fairways hit, but is only T-39 in greens in regulation.) Day is an incendiary talent, with maturity far beyond his years. He's contended once before at every major, so his game has depth, breadth and creativity. We'll be celebrating their major victories soon and often.

But the sand is beginning to run out of Phil's hourglass. He's getting close to that magic cut off age of 45, where if you haven't won your chances to break through are slim and none. Phil may not get another chance to win a U.S. Open this good again.

As for the fans, this is what they've been waiting for. As even Mongolians know, Mickelson, like Sam Snead, has never won a U.S. Open. This is despite playing well enough to finish second a record five times, being buoyed by unwaveringly adoring fan support, and having his birthday fall during Open week, sometimes even on Championship Sunday itself. He's got three green jackets and one Wanamaker Trophy, but the U.S. Open - America's national golf championship - has eluded him in heartbreaking fashion.

Both Phil and Snead could have won the U.S. Open a bunch of times. Sam Snead led it after the first round a record five times: 1937, 1939, 1947, 1949, and 1953. Of those five, the one that got away was right here in Philadelphia, just up the road at Philly Country Club's Spring Mill Course. Slammin' Sammy led after rounds one and two, and was tied for the lead coming to the 72nd hole, a short, easy par-5.

But in those days there weren't any scoreboards or means of relaying accurate, timely info around the golf course. They also played 36 holes on Saturday and didn't reconfigure the tee times so leaders finished last. So Snead thought he needed a birdie to tie. He hauled out driver, hooked it into the rough, then flailed badly trying to reach the green with a wood out of a horrific lie. It all added up to chopped salad - a grisly triple-bogey eight. When he got to the clubhouse and learned he only needed par, not bogey, he famously exclaimed, "I could have used a 7-iron all the way and made a par!"

But there's another Snead quote even more poignant. Shortly before he died, he confided a deeply personal thought to golf writer Dan Jenkins: "I think I would have won a bunch of U.S. Opens if I'd won that one back in Philadelphia."

Now comes Mickelson, just as beloved and just as star-crossed. When he finished second to Payne Stewart in 1999 we all thought the inevitable was merely postponed. In a duel of "Instant Classic" greatness, Phil played well, but Payne played better, and still needed that legendary 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole to nip Phil at the wire by a hair. It was unfortunate for Phil, but not earth-shattering. "His turn will come," we thought.

Besides, Phil and Amy's first child was born the next day.

Then came 2002 at Bethpage, when he finished second to You Know Who. Okay, we can handle that too. Sometimes you run into a buzz saw.

But then his putter developed a nasty habit of going all kablooie late in the fourth round. There was 2004 and the ghastly three-putt double-bogey from three feet on the 71st green at Shinnecock and Retief Goosen was holding the U.S. Open trophy. Because of that flame-out, Phil added the "circle of death" to his practice regimen: a drill where he goes around and around in a circle, trying to make 100 five-footers in a row.

The drill worked and Phil Try that drill at home . . . see how long you last), and then there was 2009 and the even more shocking loss to Lucas Glover, who is dull as sheet rock. Glover's plodding, methodical golf somnabulizes fans, but that's what we were left with when the battery in Phil's putter died and he missed nearly everything from 14 home.

And then there was Winged Foot, Graveyard of Champions in 2006, but it's best not to dwell on that. "I didn't get out of bed for three days," he later lamented to his friends.

"[If] I never get that win, then it would be a bit heartbreaking," he said on Thursday, not just for him, but for all golf. Mickelson is our everyman, Phil the Thrill, our go-for-broke favorite.

"It's never easy with him. He has to give us a heart attack," said sports writer Tony Korologos.

"He's always trying something wild and risky. And every time he gets away with it, he tries something even crazier," agreed golf fan Sally Pilawa. "But the things he pulls off are unbelievable."

Crazy Phil has been locked in the trunk of Smart Phil's car this week, thankfully. Gone are the "Phrankenclubs" and gadget wedges and weird choices of clubs to carry or omit from play. It's been solid thinking, planning and executing. He woke us up Thursday with a thunderclap, a scintillating 67 that topped the leaderboard all day, four birdies, one bogey. There was a bit of a hiccup Friday with a pedestrian 72. But on moving day he stayed strong while everyone percolated downward beneath him.

It's still anybody's game, and the leaderboard looks like a Who's Who of the Tour right now, but the spotlight is squarely on Phil. Atlas carrying the weight of the golf world on his shoulders again today . . . and while walking a tightrope while doing it. But you know what? Golf fans wouldn't have it any other way.

News, Notes & Quotes

The Burning Question

If Phil wins, does that mean the Open definitely returns to Merion?

Father's Day

A special Father's Day greeting to my 89 year-old Dad who taught me the game at three, and teaches me about life every day. Dad, if I turn out to just be even half the man you are, I'll be twice the man the world could ever ask me to be.

Typical Dan Jenkins!

Jenkins is here with his daughter Sally. I asked him if she was doing anything special to celebrate the Open and he replied, "I might make her go get me a cheeseburger."

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.