The USGA claims it sets up the U.S. Open every year to identify the best golfer in the world. At Merion Golf Club this week, the organization is doing an even better job of highlighting the best golfers in the world without a major championship to their credit.
At the close of Saturday’s grueling third round of the 2013 U.S. Open, only two golfers among the top 15 players within six shots of the lead have won a major championship, meaning Sunday could be an epic day for one of a handful or so major-less golfers seeking a career-defining moment at Merion.
It is, however, four-time major winner Phil Mickelson who enters Sunday’s final round with the solo lead and is undoubtedly the favorite with 18 holes left to play.
Yet should he falter, and 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel fail to rally for a second major title, the golfer holding the U.S. Open trophy Sunday evening (or perhaps Monday) will be celebrating a life-changing first major victory just as Adam Scott did three months ago at the Masters.
It could be Hunter Mahan who is paired with Mickelson and trails by a single stroke. Maybe it’s putting-savant Steve Stricker who also lives just one back of the lead. Perhaps it will be former World No. 1 Luke Donald, who enters the final round two behind Lefty.
Truth is, there’s no telling who among the major winless will rise to the challenge on Sunday, but one thing is for sure—it will be the most significant test of their careers no matter who it is.
Not only is there the pressure of trying to win that breakthrough major, but there’s also the daunting challenge of doing it against Mickelson, who will undoubtedly be the crowd favorite on every hole at Merion.
Lefty isn't just seeking his fifth major and first since 2010, he’s on a quest to win his first U.S. Open after five painful second-place finishes that have served as the most significant blemish on his otherwise impressive career resume.
Considering he has the lead after a gusty even-par 70 on Saturday and all the experience and confidence in the world, the road to a first major win for the rest of the challengers not named Schwartzel goes directly through the desperately motivated Mickelson.
As if winning a first major isn't difficult enough, toppling one of the most popular golfers on a career quest in the process is just off the charts crazy tough.
Yet that’s what faces the likes of Donald, Mahan, Stricker, Justin Rose and even Jason Day, who is only three back after a solid two-under 70 on Saturday. No one said winning a major championship is easy, and it most certainly will not be for any of them on Sunday.
The reward for any of them, however, is well worth the test they will have endured.
In the modern age of golf, careers are defined by whether an accomplished golfers wins a major or not. Think about it, the first paragraph of a bio for golfers such as Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia includes "hasn't won a major championship."
There's an elevated hierarchy that Donald, Stricker, Mahan and the others have a chance to climb into on Sunday. Win and their careers are elite, lose and they will still lack a defining moment. It might not be fair, but it is the reality they face and the opportunity they have in the final round at Merion.
That said, perhaps more than any of the chasers, it’s Donald who has the most to gain but also the most pressure on him.
The former World No. 1 has struggled to live up to expectations in major championships, especially at the U.S. Open where he has never before contended, much less even finished in the top 10.
Donald will have to shake off a disastrous double-bogey on the 18th hole Saturday and will have the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders as he tries to become the first Englishman to win a major since Nick Faldo in 1996.
Fellow countryman Justin Rose also shares that burden, but the expectations on him pale in comparison to the ones Donald takes to the first tee at Merion on Sunday. Like Donald, Rose starts Sunday only two shots back of Lefty and at the doorstep of his best chance to win a major championship in his somewhat underachieving career to this point.
Perhaps the two with the best shot of denying Mickelson are Mahan, who will walk alongside Lefty all day, and Stricker, who has been among the steadiest of golfers at Merion this week. Neither of those two Americans has anything near the pressure Donald, or for that matter Mickelson does, but both have game’s ideally suited for the U.S. Open test.
That’s not to say, however, that Stricker and Mahan don’t desperately want to win a major championship—they absolutely do.
The difference is they don’t carry anyone else’s expectations other than their own around Merion on Sunday, and that could be a significant advantage for them when the round turns to the downright brutal back nine and the pressure ramps up.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the wanting first-time winners is Day, who seemed to come out of nowhere Saturday to get into contention in a major for the second time this year.
Day finished third at Augusta National in April and is quite familiar with final round major pressure.
The long-hitting Aussie can put away the disappointment of two Masters near-misses in the past three years by continuing his weekend charge to a U.S. Open title on Sunday. It would also elevate Day to right alongside McIlroy as one of the brightest young golfers in the world.
Since the week at Merion began, there has been a sense that something special and unexpected was going to take place in the 2013 U.S. Open. Any one of the major-less golfers breaking through and winning Sunday would certainly qualify for the unexpected portion of that equation.
Yet from the start it just seems like this tournament was destined to be Mickelson’s, and no one would argue that he deserves it as much as any golfer ever has. For many on the leaderboard without a major, their day will eventually come.
But this Father’s Day will be Mickelson's, and everyone, including those chasing him in the final round, will stand and applaud.