Phil Mickelson takes a one-stroke lead into the final round of the U.S. Open. (Kinniard/Getty Images)
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Standing on the tee at the 17th on Saturday evening, Phil Mickelson was just thinking about hitting the green on the monster of a 254-yard par 3, putting twice and moving on to his final hole of the long, draining day.
"But the 4-iron I hit -- I just stood there and admired it," Mickelson said. "It was one of the best shots I've ever hit."
The ball obediently hit the green and caught the slope, stopping about 15 feet below the hole. Mickelson smiled and tipped his cap to the crowd, took the putter from his caddy Bones MacKay and walked down the hill into the amphitheater.
Then Mickelson made the putt that would put him 2 under and give him sole possession of the lead after his playing partner, Luke Donald, made bogey. Mickelson pumped his fist into the air as the ball tracked toward the hole and the crowd roared.
"It just was right down the center of the green and I was hoping it would kind of get the right bounces and so forth and it did," Mickelson said. "It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it.
"And it was fun to do that because that's just not a hole you expect to get one back."
Granted, Mickelson bogeyed the 18th but he is still the only player in red numbers through 54 holes. He'll enter the final round with a one-stroke lead over Charl Schwartzel, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan, who will join him in Sunday's final pairing.
Mickelson, who has finished second a record five times at the U.S. Open, has won three of the four majors where he has taken the lead into the final round. The one he didn't? You guessed it -- was a U.S. Open where Retief Goosen overtook him in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.
"I love being in the thick of it," the four-time major champ said. "I've had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it's been heart-breaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide. But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open.
"My ball striking is better than it's ever been. My putting is better than it has been in years, and I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it."
And why does Mickelson feel so comfortable at Merion? He likes the variety the course presents.
While U.S. Opens always place a premium on par, Mickelson knows there are some birdie holes to tackle along with what he calls "some of the hardest par holes that we have ever played," and that has gotten his juices going.
"I think it's helped me this week, one, how much I've loved the golf course and the setup," Mickelson said.
The big lefthander vows he won't fell any more pressure on Sunday than anyone else. The man who spent Wednesday in California attending his oldest daughter's eight-grade graduation is going for quite a trifecta -- it's Father's Day, his 43rd birthday and another chance to win the U.S. Open.
"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," Mickelson said.