ARDMORE, Pa. – The USGA must be saving all the roars for Sunday, or maybe golf used up its allotted cheers at April’s Masters.
This much is certain: Through three grinding days at the U.S. Open Merion has proved every bit the grande dame she was 32 years ago when the national championship was last played along Philadelphia’s main line. Or maybe she’s a mercurial librarian considering the hush that fell over the East Course late on a sun-splashed afternoon.
Late Friday, USGA executive director Mike Davis said he imagined Saturday’s delayed third round would bring lower scores. Imagine if Davis & Co. had put Saturday’s pins in the hard spots?
While Merion’s “easy” stretch, Nos. 10-13, played the part, backing up an already congested leaderboard, the winding finish that starts at the 14th proved to be every bit the equalizer, culling the top of the marquee at every turn.
When the trailing groups cleared the 13th hole, three players were tied for the lead at 2 under – Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel and Hunter Mahan. By the time dusk settled in over the historic layout just Phil Mickelson remained in red figures. But even Lefty, long love-crossed at his national championship, didn’t feel like celebrating after a bogey at the final hole.
“I need a good score tomorrow. I don't know what number that is, but I do believe I've got an under-par round in me tomorrow even with the difficult pins and the possibly firmer conditions,” said Mickelson, who turns 43 on Sunday.
Mickelson was hardly the only player who stumbled into the scoring trailer. Five of the top six players on the leaderboard made bogey or worse on the final hole, including Donald’s double bogey from a particularly nasty lie short of the green. In fact, the top 15 players played the closer in 14 over par, a foreboding finish for any would-be U.S. Open champion and a harbinger of things to come.
For Schwartzel and Mahan things came apart long before they stepped to the 530-yard 18th. Both bogeyed the final two holes, while Donald suffered a two-stroke swing when Mickelson rolled in a 13-footer at the penultimate hole and the Englishman made bogey.
The USGA says par is of little concern, which would make this week’s grind a happy coincidence of timeless architecture and a retro setup by Davis. A perfect fit for a suddenly subdued Lefty.
A five-time runner-up at the Open, Mickelson arrived in Philly with a game plan that was very un-Mickelson-like. He abandoned his driver – or what passes for a driver in his world – for a 64-degree wedge because, he figured, he could save more strokes with the wedge than with the driver.
The blueprint has worked to perfection through three days.
“He likes this place and he has a good game plan that he could work on in Memphis (at the Fedex St. Jude Classic),” said Mickelson’s swing coach Butch Harmon. “The thing I liked the most is I knew he wasn’t going to try to hit a driver, which, for Phil, is a good thing because you know he isn’t going to try and bomb the thing and hit it 400 yards. He’s had a very good game plan and stuck to that plan.”
In practical terms, that plan was tested early Saturday when he bogeyed two of his first five holes, but he played his closing nine in 3 under before his miscue at the 18th on his way to a third-round 70 and perhaps his best chance to make up for all those Open heartbreaks from Pinehurst to Bethpage.
Mickelson was nearly perfect on the closing loop before his most recent no-driver experiment backfired at the 18th when he hit his 3-wood just 265 yards, some 47 yards short of the iconic Ben Hogan plaque, and 260 yards to the green. He rifled a fairway wood through the green but couldn’t save his par.
That’s not to say the Mickelsons should start planning a combination birthday-Father’s Day-U.S. Open party for Sunday night. Fourteen players are within five strokes of Mickelson, well within the margin of error at this U.S. Open, including part-time player Steve Stricker (T-2), Donald (T-5) and Justin Rose (T-5).
Following Saturday, when Merion played nearly 4 1/2 strokes over par and just six players posted rounds in the 60s, a one-stroke – or even five-stroke – advantage is a statistical dead heat, a competitive reality that somewhat mitigated the sting of Donald’s closing double bogey.
“Through 16 holes, I could have been 4 or 5 under and really was playing as good a golf as I played for a while,” said Donald, who closed with a 71 and was in a three-way tie for fifth at 1 over. “I was pretty much in control of my ball and I'll forget about those two holes and carry on tomorrow.”
Two high-profile players who likely won’t be in that mix on Sunday are world Nos. 1 and 2, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who struggled to rounds of 76 and 75, respectively, and will tee off on Sunday more than two hours before Mickelson.
For Woods, the problem has been too many missed putts; while McIlroy has had to play too many shots from the hay.
“It is certainly frustrating because I was feeling like I was playing well this week and I just didn't make the putts I needed to make,” Woods said. “The first two days, I had like three three-putts and I was four shots off the lead, and I missed a boatload of putts within 10 feet. So I really wasn't that far off.”
At Merion, being not “that far off” is all it takes, which explains the subdued masses that flocked to the East Course for Round 3 and sets the stage for what will likely be a silent Sunday.
At this U.S. Open they don’t cheer pars, only champions.