FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – This wasn’t your happy-go-lucky Phil Mickelson, the one that’s been high-fiving his way into the New York fans’ hearts.
After he curled in a 35-foot birdie putt on Bethpage’s 18th hole, he clenched his fist and his jaw, a look of determination washing across his face.
Mickelson’s birdie to end Sunday’s third round put him in position for a Monday charge that could turn this U.S. Open into storybook material.
If Mickelson wins, the only precipitation we may see Monday could be in the form of teardrops. The emotions that would come with a Mickelson victory cannot be overstated.
He isn’t just trying to win his first U.S. Open, but win one for his wife, Amy, as she battles breast cancer.
“I’m fighting,” Mickelson said Sunday.
It showed in his third-round 69, where he used seven birdies to offset four bogeys and a double.
Can he erase a five-shot deficit in 16 holes Monday, though?
He has the support of the outspoken New York galleries, and the inspiration that comes from trying to win one for the love of his life.
“She’s left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints, that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room,” Mickelson said in his pre-tournament press conference. “So I’m going to try to accommodate that.”
Winning when so many emotions are attached to the victory is a near-impossible task. Golf is a game that demands players to suppress emotions.
In order to win, Mickelson will have to minimize the mistakes that plagued him Sunday, and hope Lucas Glover and Ricky Barnes fold under the final-round pressure.
Barnes and Glover are tied at 7 under par, five ahead of Mickelson, David Duval, Ross Fisher and Hunter Mahan.
Glover will return to his ball in the second fairway when play resumes at 9 a.m. Monday. Barnes’ ball is deep in the left rough. He appears headed for a bogey, and Glover looks destined to be your early leader.
Barnes and Glover have a combined one PGA Tour victory, the only one coming when Glover holed out a bunker shot to win at Disney at the end of the ’05 season. Glover’s first shot Monday will come from his favorite yardage, 123 yards, he said.
Mickelson made par on his first two holes of the fourth round. Those may have been inconsequential if he didn’t make that putt on 18, his fourth in the final six holes of the third round.
All strokes count the same on the scorecard, but not in a player’s mind.
“I reached my goal of shooting anything under par,” Mickelson said after the third round. “I gave myself a chance (for Monday), and after so many up-and-downs, to have that kind of boost of accomplishing that mini-goal was big.”
Mickelson will have to continue making birdies Monday at the same pace. He’s done it before, shooting a final-nine 31, including birdies on five of his final seven holes, to win his first major at the ’04 Masters.
If Mickelson were to win, his final-round comeback would represent the second-best in U.S. Open history, trailing only Arnold Palmer’s rally from seven behind at Cherry Hills in 1960.
This is a U.S. Open, but birdies are possible because of soft conditions. How else to explain Barnes becoming the fourth player in U.S. Open history to reach double digits under par?
Mickelson has experienced enough heartbreak in the Big Apple. Maybe it’s time the guy caught a break.
Three of his record-tying four U.S. Open runner-ups have come in the New York area. There was the famed tent shot at Winged Foot in ‘06, a three-putt double bogey on the 71st hole at Shinnecock in ‘04 and a distant second to Woods the last time the Open came to Bethpage.
Mickelson’s three majors are undoubtedly an advantage when chasing a twosome whose biggest victory is Barnes’ win in the ‘02 U.S. Amateur.
“Having won a couple of majors, I feel confident and I’m able to be patient much easier in a challenging event like this,” Mickelson said. “I’m not forcing it.”
Barnes didn’t hide emotions after play was called Sunday night. This is a man feeling the pressure of the U.S. Open. Barnes walked by himself toward the clubhouse from the second fairway. He refused to talk to the media as he left the course.
There’s plenty of storylines other than Mickelson on that leaderboard. Unlike last year’s British Open, David Duval stayed on the leaderboard after the third round. Tiger Woods is seven strokes back after a birdie on No. 7, his final hole Sunday.
But none would illicit the emotions of a Mickelson victory. As unlikely as it may be, Mickelson seems determined to make it happen.