Mickelson's road to title paved with challengers


ARDMORE, Pa. – Hold on to your wicker baskets.

If Phil Mickelson is going to win Sunday at Merion Golf Club, he will have to hold off a bunch of challengers as hungry to win their first major championship as Mickelson is to finally win his first U.S. Open.

Mickelson takes more than a one-shot lead into the final round. He takes the advantage of knowing he has withstood major championship pressure before and prevailed. Four times, he has won majors. It’s a substantial edge given so many of his closest pursuers have never won one.

Charl Schwartzel is the only other contender among the top 15 on the leaderboard who knows what it takes to win a major. Schwartzel’s lone major was the Masters two years ago.

While there’s a staggering lack of major championship pedigree on the board, there is a load of proven winners.

Amateur Michael Kim is the only player among the top 10 who hasn’t won a PGA Tour event.

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“Given that I've had some past major championships, and some success here, I feel as well equipped as I could be heading into tomorrow's final round,” Mickelson said. “I think it's going to be fun.”

Sunday feels like Mickelson’s big day in so many ways. It’s Father’s Day, and he proved how meaningful that role is to him flying across the country so he could be there when his daughter, Amanda, gave an eighth-grade graduation speech. This act of fatherly love meant flying back from his California home in the middle of the night to make his Thursday morning tee time.

Sunday is also Mickelson’s 43rd birthday.

Mickelson, though, knows as well as anyone what heartbreak the U.S. Open can deliver with his five second-place finishes.

His major-less challengers should be bolstered knowing Adam Scott broke through to win his first major at the Masters in April. They’ll be looking to make this The Year of the Breakthrough in major championship golf. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a little streak of breakthroughs going in the U.S. Open. The last four U.S. Open champs were all first-time major championship winners.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Hunter Mahan, who will tee it up with Mickelson in Sunday’s final pairing just one shot off the lead. “It's going to be a very, very exciting finish, because I don't think any lead is safe.”

Mickelson isn’t the only player with a special story to tell if he wins.

Mahan, 31, carries so much promise as a five-time PGA Tour winner, but there’s also the scar from that Ryder Cup loss three years ago in Wales, the tear-filled aftermath with Mahan feeling like he let his fellow Americans down losing a vital singles match to Graeme McDowell. And then the sting of being left off the last American team with no chance to redeem himself at Medinah.

With a victory Sunday, Mahan would claim the grandest prize in U.S. golf.

“I feel like my game has been good for a while, and I felt like this course suits me pretty well,” Mahan said. “The U.S. Open does. I'm a good ball striker, and I’ve just got to get my short game a little bit better to kind of save those big up-and-downs and make those 6-, 8-footers for par. I felt like I did that today. It feels good to be in the hunt and be in contention.”

Steve Stricker is seeking to break through in the majors at 46. If he wins, he’ll surpass Hale Irwin as the oldest U.S. Open champion. Irwin was 45 when he won at Medinah in 1990. Stricker will play in the second-to-last pairing with Schwartzel. They’re both one shot behind Mickelson.

Winning would make for a special Father’s Day for Stricker, too. He significantly cut back his schedule this year so he could spend more time with his wife, Nicki, and their two daughters back in their Madison, Wis., home.

“It would mean a lot,” Stricker said. “It really would, but it's going to be a challenge tomorrow.

“A win, it would be unbelievable, but I'm not trying to think about that yet. I'm just trying to execute the shots that I know how to do, and take one shot at a time, and go from there.”

Luke Donald, 35, and Justin Rose, 32, will go off together two shots behind Mickelson. They’ve got a special mission. As fellow countrymen, they’re bidding to give England its first U.S. Open title since Tony Jacklin won in 1970, and its first major championship title since Nick Faldo won the Masters in 1996.

For Donald, winning a major adds legitimacy to his 56 weeks at No. 1. He never got the full respect he deserved carrying that ranking despite winning Player of the Year and money titles on both the PGA Tour and European Tour in 2011.

“When you look at Phil, he started winning majors around 34 or 35,” Donald said. “Of course, that’s my goal. I want to win majors. I got to No. 1 in the world, and I’ve won a great amount of tournaments around the world, but I would dearly love to win one of these.”

Rose is looking for the same validation as Donald.

“The next thing missing from the resume is a major now,” Rose said. “But I think that winning more is a big goal.”

Billy Horschel, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler are all looking to break through as 20somethings. Horschel is 26, Day 25 and Fowler 24. Horschel starts Sunday two shots back alongside Day, who is three back. Fowler is four back in his pairing with the amateur, Kim, who is five back.

Mickelson wants his first U.S. Open title so much after so many close calls, there has to be the same kind of angst all these players feel seeking their first major.

“I don't think I feel any more pressure than anybody else who wants to win the tournament, a major championship, the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “But it would certainly mean a lot to me in this is a tournament where for years I've had opportunities, I've come close to. It would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf.”

Mickelson isn’t alone feeling that way.