U.S. Open Golf, a fundamentally different game than pros play week-in and week-out on the PGA Tour, has rules, and Phil Mickelson knows them as well as anyone.
Rule 1: You have to hit the fairways.
Rule 2: You must hit the greens,
Rule 3: If you don’t follow Rule 2, you’ve got to miss in a spot where you have a chance to recover.
Rule 4: You have to summon the nerve to hit a 6-foot par putt with enough conviction to make it hold its line, even though missing would result in an 8-foot comebacker for bogey.
For two days, Mickelson played by the rules and was rewarded with a share of the lead at the U.S. Open at Merion. But as the frat boys cheered “Phil! Phil! Phil” and the sun-soaked, beer-loving crowds cheered him Saturday afternoon, Mickelson seemingly developed amnesia.
Mickelson blocked his tee shot on the 556-yard par-5 second into the left rough and scrambled to save par. He dropped his tee shot to the 245-yard par-3 third hole short and into the rough, then hit his pitch shot too far and missed a downhill 6-foot par putt. He overshot the hole with a wedge on the fourth and missed a downhill 10-footer for birdie, then hit a 60-degree wedge from the front of the green on the fifth and left himself yet another downhill putt. He missed the 8-footer for par and fell to 1 over, out of the lead.
Meanwhile, Luke Donald, the Englishman with a game that seems perfectly suited to following the rules of U.S. Open Golf, played the front nine in 1 under par. He wasn’t perfect, but he was tidier than Mickelson and Billy Horschel, who was in the grouping after he shot a 67 Friday and hit all 18 greens in regulation. (Clearly, Horschel had studied U.S. Open Golf’s rules.)
But then, after electing to play an iron off the tee instead of going for the green on the par-4 10th hole, even though it was only 280 yards long during the third round, Mickelson hit a wedge shot from the fairway that stopped 6 feet from the hole and led to a birdie, his first of the day.
He hit the fairway with his 3-wood on the 11th, then knocked his 136-yard approach shot to 15 feet and made another birdie putt.
Cured of his amnesia, and playing by the U.S. Open Golf’s rules once again, Mickelson played the back nine in 32 strokes to finish his day’s round at even par. The highlight of the day for Mickelson came on the 17th when he hit a 4-iron on the 254-yard par 3 to within 15 feet and made the birdie putt.
“I just stood there and admired it,” Mickelson said. “It was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit. I mean, it just was right down the center of the green, and I was hoping it would kind of get the right bounces and so forth, and it did. It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with, and I made it.”
Although he made bogey after leaving short a greenside chip on 18, at 1 under for the tournament, Mickelson has the lead to himself and will be paired with Hunter Mahan (who shot 69 Saturday) in the final round.
Conversely, Donald had trouble following the rules down the stretch, missed several short putts and finishing with a bogey on the 17th and a double bogey on the 18th hole.
“It was tough out there,” he said after his round. “There were not many easy pins – a few pins that even in practice I wouldn’t have dreamed they would put them there. But it’s the U.S. Open, and that’s kind of what you expect.”
While Donald was assuredly upbeat and positive after his 71, Mickelson was beaming.
“It’s going to be a fun day tomorrow,” he said after he’d signed his card. “I’m really looking forward to it; I’m looking forward to facing the challenge of Merion again. It’s a wonderful test.”
At 8:55 p.m., as the skies over Merion went from purple to black, Mickelson stood by a rope and signed autographs for some late-staying fans.
“It’s a different style of golf than we play week-in and week-out,” he said. “But preparing for a U.S. Open now and playing in a number of them – I don’t know; about 20 or so now over the years – I know what to expect. I just have to prepare for it properly – and then when I show up, stick to my game plan.”
If Mickelson sticks to the plan for 18 more holes and follows the U.S. Open Golf rules, Sunday, on his birthday, on Father’s Day, he might finally get the present he’s always wanted.