A logjammed leaderboard of elite players at the 2013 U.S. Open is headlined by Phil Mickelson, who shot an even-par 70 to take a one-shot lead after the third day of action in Ardmore, Pa.
Mickelson is one under par overall through 54 holes on Merion Golf Club's extremely difficult layout—just ahead of a trio of stars in Steve Stricker, Charl Schwartzel and Hunter Mahan, who all sit at level par.
Luke Donald held the lead entering No. 17 but bogeyed, then wiped his approach to the par-four 18th and drew a horrible lie, which he felt he deserved, according to USGA on Twitter.
The former world No. 1 went on to double the last for a round of 71 to drop to one-over for the championship.
No one else in the field besides Mickelson is in red figures at the year's second major, as this relatively short venue is proving to have plenty of bite. The course is tough enough, but slow play was a noticeable theme.
Robert Lusetich of Fox Sports expressed his frustration in the early going:
However, Rickie Fowler provided a reasonable explanation for the long waits after he fired a three-under 67, which was good for low round of the day, via Golf Digest on Twitter:
The top-two ranked players in the world, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, are nowhere to be found and have shot themselves out of the championship at this point. Woods and McIlroy finished Round 3 nine over and eight over, respectively.
Golf Digest's Dan Jenkins documented the extent of their struggles in being grouped together for the third consecutive time:
Let's take a closer look at each of those in best position to win entering Sunday, which will encompass some highlights from Round 3 and predictions as to how they will ultimately fare.
A couple of dropped shots at Nos. 3 and 5 threatened to thwart yet another strong bid for Mickelson to seriously contend for the U.S. Open trophy, but as was the case on Friday, his patience was rewarded.
Rather than deploying his trademark, "Phil the Thrill" tactics and being aggressive, Lefty simply took what was the course dictated. Eventually, he began showing shades of his opening round, when it looked as though he could do no wrong.
Mickelson trailed the lead for most of the day but seized it with a phenomenal birdie at the lengthy par-three 17th:
Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman documented how flush Mickelson hit his tee shot, when he essentially had no choice but to pull a 4-iron in a golf bag filled with five wedges:
It is Father's Day and Mickelson's 43rd birthday on Sunday. For a man who attended his eighth-grade daughter's graduation and made it back to Ardmore just hours before his tee time and who has finished runner-up a record five times in this event, it would be fitting if it were Mickelson's time to win.
With the way Mickelson is putting, grinding and displaying unprecedented care, he deserves to need a clutch shot to break through at the tournament that has eluded him his whole career.
Count on this fantastical storyline coming true, because Mickelson will be the 113th United States Open champion.
Ready for this? Stricker—the 46-year-old entering the twilight of his PGA Tour career and a known shorter hitter—was the only player to finish the epically long final two holes without dropping a shot other than Billy Horschel.
Key par saves at Nos. 17 and 18 kept Stricker within ideal striking distance, and he is in prime position to get a crack at his maiden major after a round of 70.
Stricker has three top-six finishes in the U.S. Open and began 2013 with three top-five finishes on a limited schedule. Speaking of which, ESPN's Justin Ray noted how long it's been since Stricker had such a finish in a major, but he seems to be turning back the clocks in more than one way thus far:
His play has dipped recently, but Stricker clearly wasn't lacking attention to detail in his preparation for Merion.
It all could have gotten away from Stricker at the par-three ninth hole, when he flailed his tee shot to the right and found the water:
Stricker bailed himself out by birdieing the subsequent hole, then birdied the par-four 12th before parring in from there. The AP's Doug Ferguson was impressed by how well Stricker toughed it out:
This marks Stricker's first tournament since The Players Championship. It seems as though he never left, because Stricker is tied for second with Round 2 co-leader Horschel in hitting 42 of 54 greens in regulation.
Since I believe Mickelson will win, it won't be Stricker's time. At some point he'll have to go for the gusto and try to win the tournament with a brilliant shot, which isn't Stricker's style. With the length of the closing two holes, his hopes are likely to be dashed on Sunday at the very site they were fortified in the third round.
Merion is a ball-striking master's paradise, so it's no surprise that Mahan is just one stroke off the pace. What is surprising is that he's hitting just over 60 percent of greens in regulation—including 20 of his last 36.
Bear in mind that Mahan won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in 2012 over Rory McIlroy, then valiantly defended his title this season before losing to Matt Kuchar in the final showdown.
Grinding for pars is something Mahan appears apt at doing, because his long game is actually not as spot-on as usual. Even with bogeys at the final two holes, he still managed to post a 69.
When Mahan gets hot on the greens and has his swing clicking reasonably well, he's proved to be a force to be reckoned with.
It will be Mickelson and Mahan in the final group on Sunday, and after the round, Mickelson thought he'd have to shoot something under par to win the championship. Don't be surprised if these two engage in a duel down the stretch.
The 2011 Masters champion experienced somewhat of a slump after his massive breakthrough. Now he's in position to win major No. 2 and establish himself as more of a household name type of superstar.
Schwartzel's calm demeanor, wonderful swing and touch translate well to U.S. Opens, though his best finish was a tie for ninth in 2011 when Rory McIlroy ran away from the field by eight shots.
A bogey at the par-five second had to sting Schwartzel at the outset of Round 3, but he birdied the next two holes, then moved into red figures after this sweet putt for birdie at the short par-four seventh:
As many did on Saturday, though, Schwartzel stumbled down the stretch, bogeying the final two holes to slip to even—precisely as Mahan did.
Shane Bacon of Yahoo! referenced Schwartzel's aforementioned victory at Augusta National in which the South African rattled off an unprecedented four birdies to close. Bacon suggests that perhaps four pars would be enough to get it done in this U.S. Open:
It wouldn't be surprising to see Schwartzel make the biggest charge outside of Mahan.
Among the 21 players within seven strokes of Mickelson's lead, Schwartzel is the only prior major winner other than Paul Lawrie and Ernie Els, who are both six over and tied for 16th.