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Lefty's center stage in US Open drama
Imagine what Frank Capra could do with Sunday’s broadcast of the 113th United States Open?
He’d have a nation in tears, kids cuddling their daddies tightly as dusk falls on Merion.
What a narrative: Phil Mickelson as a modern day Jimmy Stewart aw-shucking his way to a first and long-in-the-making National Open on his 43rd birthday, which also happens to be Father’s Day.
It’d be an instant Father’s Day classic: It’s a Wonderful Life, Too.
And what a backstory: In 1999, he wore a pager at the U.S. Open and swore that if it beeped, he’d leave the tournament immediately to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. As it turned out, daughter Amanda was born the day after he lost to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst No. 2.
He arrived here on Thursday at almost 4 a.m. — three hours before his tee time — after flying back to California to see Amanda graduate from the eighth grade.
What a graduation gift he’d give her by winning a tournament he’s dreamed of winning since he was her age.
Mickelson has won four majors — three Masters and a PGA Championship — but the U.S. Open remains a glaring hole on his resume.
It’s not that he hasn’t had his chances. He has been runner-up a record five times.
Most of his failures have been at his own hand, most infamously seven years ago at Winged Foot, when he made a catastrophic double bogey on the last hole to hand the trophy to Australian Geoff Ogilvy.
Now he has his latest, and maybe best — and, yes, maybe even last — chance for redemption.
And how perfect that the backdrop would be venerable Merion, on the leafy outskirts of Philadelphia, with its rich history of great champions, including Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino.
“I can’t wait to get back out,” Mickelson said as the light faded on Saturday night.
He shot a commendable even-par round of 70 to stand as the only man in red numbers — 1 under par — after three grueling days.
Tiger Woods, meanwhile, shot a seven-bogey, 6-over 76 in the third round — matching his worst round as a pro at the U.S. Open. That left him 10 strokes behind Mickelson.
Mickelson's overall lead is slender — just one shot above former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and Hunter Mahan, who both made bogeys on the exacting final two holes.
Steve Stricker, one of golf’s good guys, also is at even par and hoping to write his own feel-good story of a breakthrough major at age 46.
“It would mean a lot, it really would,” said Stricker, “It would be unbelievable. But I’m not trying to think about that yet.”
Mickelson, too, knows he can’t afford to get ahead of himself. Not at Merion, where disaster lurks.
Kyle Stanley is a PGA Tour winner, yet he shot 15 over par on Saturday, matching the 85 shot by Shawn Stefani.
Sergio Garcia said he hit only one marginal shot on the 15th hole, but after three tee shots went out of bounds, walked away from the hole with a 10.
It’s not far-fetched to think of a winner coming from six or seven shots back because of how hard it is to make pars on many of these holes.
The closing five holes are particularly brutal.
“I played them at even par and was almost thrilled,” said Mickelson.
The Californian isn’t one to see the glass half empty, so it’s not surprising to hear him speak enthusiastically about Sunday’s final round.
But there may be a little more substance behind his optimism this time around. He’s been disciplined through three rounds, which isn’t exactly his modus operandi.
Maybe he’s finally figured out what it takes — throttling back, playing smart, unadventurous golf — to win one of these?
“I love being in the thick of it,” Mickelson said. “I've had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it's been heartbreaking 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.”
It was interesting, too, to hear Mickelson respond when he was asked if he felt he needed to win this one given that the sands of time are running out on his career.
“No, at 43, I feel as good as I've ever felt,” he said. "I feel like I'm in better shape than I've been in years. I feel stronger than I've been, more flexible. And I've had no injuries or aches or pains.
“I've changed a lot of things since I have been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. I changed my diet, I changed the way I do things. But I feel terrific, and I don't think that my golf swing, which is not predicated on violence and rotation and so forth, it's developed more on length and arc and leverage to create speed as opposed to physical brute force, has allowed me to play injury-free for this many years.”
Though he didn’t want to get ahead of himself, he knows what’s on the line: a story they’ll be talking about for many a year.
“Yeah,” he said. “It's got the makings to be something special.”
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