U.S. Open winner will need to hang on for dear life

Is it Phil Mickelson's time? The five-time U.S. Open runner-up will take a one-shot lead into the final round at Merion on Sunday.

Is it Phil Mickelson's time? The five-time U.S. Open runner-up will take a one-shot lead into the final round at Merion on Sunday.

ARDMORE, Pa. -- Only two months on a calendar separate the Masters and the U.S. Open, but a galaxy separates the Sundays we encounter at each. Sundays at Augusta National bring birdies and eagles; roars and joy rule the day. Sundays at the U.S. Open identify the last man clinging to a bending branch just before it snaps off the side of a cliff. The U.S. Open’s resounding chorus? A collective groan.

That being the formula, Merion, stage for the 113th U.S. Open, won’t disappoint on Sunday. The little course that could, measuring a smidge under 7,000 yards and moistened by more than 7 inches of precipitation this week, has fooled us all, like some quiet bespectacled grandmother at the far end of the poker table who suddenly turns over four kings.

As the rain fell in buckets early in Open week, four-time major winner Ernie Els and others sheepishly talked about seeing more birdies than usual at a U.S. Open. Players were being asked about 62s and potential winning scores that might climb double-digits under par. After all, the best players on the planet were going to have scoring clubs in their hands, and the greens were going to be softer than a goose-down pillow.

And Merion simply smirked.

“Sure, there was some concern when we got rain, because that meant we couldn’t control the setup,” said George "Buddy" Marucci, a club member who captained the U.S. to a Walker Cup victory at Merion four years ago. “But this is a hard golf course whether it’s playing firm or whether it’s soft. It’s been a great Open. Mike Davis (executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, in charge of setup) has done a fabulous job.”

We’re repeatedly told the USGA doesn’t really care about score, but it’s an alarming coincidence that year after year, shooting level par nearly always keeps one in the mix. Sunday it may be the perfect standard.

We asked for old school this week, right? Well, Merion, which hadn’t held an Open since players competed with persimmon woods and wound golf balls, has been the strict venerable schoolmaster, rapping players across the knuckles all week with a firm ruler.

“I’d read somewhere this morning they were going to set the course up (Saturday) so that it was ‘gettable,’ smiled Luke Donald, who finished bogey/double bogey to shoot 71. “I think it was an April Fool’s joke.”

Your winner on Sunday will not be a fluke, not with the exam that awaits once players leave the diminutive par-3 13th and cross the road for what is one of the most arduous finishes in major-championship golf. Why, on Saturday, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Luke Donald and Charl Schwartzel all stepped to the 17th tee, a par-3 stretched to 252 yards, at under par for the tournament – and not a single one of them finished in red numbers. Between the four on 17-18, there wasn’t a single par; they combined for a double bogey and seven bogeys. The third-round scoring average: 74.3.

Watching the leaders putt on the 15th green, Davis said the course setup would be similar on Sunday, and perhaps, depending on wind direction, “just a hair easier.”

Sunday’s winner could very well be a man who posts an early number and sits sipping an iced tea in player hospitality. Or, given Merion’s hard-to-tackle difficulty, sipping something far, far stronger.

So who will step forward on Sunday to capture the 113th U.S. Open? Well, the possibilities are rich with intrigue. Certainly Phil Mickelson, the leader in each of the first three days, cannot think of a better present for his 43rd birthday, and nobody has played any better than the left-hander this week. But he knows as well as anyone the difficulty of the task at hand; should he temporarily forget, he has five runner-up medals back home in California that will jolt his mind.

There are young guys in the hunt (Hunter Mahan, Billy Horschel, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler) trying to land their first major; a part-time player (Steve Stricker) trying to become the oldest U.S. Open champion at age 46; a couple of proven Englishmen (Donald, Rose) trying to win their country’s first U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970; and a steady, highly talented South African (Charl Schwartzel) trying to add a U.S. Open trophy to a green jacket he secured two Aprils ago.

“It’s going to be a fun day tomorrow,” said Mickelson.

Fun? Really? Sure, if you like pulling wings off flies, hitting your thumb with a hammer and hearing fingers screeching down a chalkboard. There are no alliances in this annual episode of “Survivor,” and it surely will get lonely out there.

But by early Sunday evening outside Philadelphia, a playoff notwithstanding, at least one survivor is going to experience the reward of exhausted elation. There will be a U.S. Open trophy at his side, and hey, that in itself is pretty fun.

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