Mickelson retains lead despite tough day with putter

Phil Mickelson reacts to his birdie putt on the 18th green to card a 2-over 72 and is tied for the U.S. Open lead at 1 under.

Phil Mickelson reacts to his birdie putt on the 18th green to card a 2-over 72 and is tied for the U.S. Open lead at 1 under.

— It was well-chronicled how little sleep Phil Mickelson got Wednesday, crossing the country by private jet after watching his oldest child, Amanda, deliver a speech at her eighth-grade commencement. Considering how he putted for 17 holes in the second round of the 113th U.S. Open, Mickelson might have been in for even less sleep Friday night.

Teeing off late in the day and playing in relatively docile conditions upon Merion’s East Course, Mickelson, who began his round in the lead at 3 under, struck it solidly from tee to green but lost a monster opportunity to build some space between him and the field, failing to make a single birdie until his final hole on a tranquil course that appeared ready to surrender its share. He shot 72, and stands atop the leaderboard next to Billy Horschel, the lone players in a starting field of 156 starters in red numbers (68 players have yet to finish the second round). Mickelson and Horschel stand at 1-under 139.

“It was hard to make putts,” Mickelson said afterward. “I struggled with a lot of short putts and I’ve been putting really well (of late). That should not have been an over-par round, as well as I played.”

Mickelson’s lone birdie, which arrived in the dusk, was an unexpected one, coming on a 20-footer left of the hole at 18 shortly before 8:30 p.m., just minutes after the horn was sounded to suspend play for the day. Mickelson chalked up some of his woes with the shortstick to soft, drying and indented greens that showed the wear and tear of a great deal of play Friday, and he hopes that his final stroke will be a harbinger for success on the weekend. He believes there could be a 65 sitting out there Saturday or Sunday, but he certainly will need to hole out more effectively if it's going to belong to him.

Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up, began his day with a three-putt at the first hole, then faced good looks for birdies at Nos. 2 (8 feet), 8 (3 feet), 9 (7 feet), 11 (8 feet), and 12 (three putts, including a missed 18-incher). He made none of them. He had 33 putts on the day. He sprinkled in a bogey on the shortest hole on the golf course, the scrawny, 123-yard 13th, where he wedged it long into a back bunker and could not get up and down from a semi-plugged lie.

It was that kind of frustrating afternoon for the big left-hander.

Clearly, his putting troubles were weighing on him. When he powered a 3-footer around the right lip of the cup at the par-4 eighth, where he’d hit an absolutely brilliant approach, he muttered quietly to himself all the way to the tee at the par-3 ninth. But Mickelson is nothing if not resilient, and he bounced right back with a brilliant 6-iron at the 219-yard hole, his ball stopping 7 feet from the flagstick. He made a decent stroke, but his ball hung cruelly on the left edge, refusing to vanish into darkness.

“Pars are birdies today, Phil,” yelled one spectator. “Don’t worry about it.”

But clearly, he appeared concerned. At days’s end, at 1-under 139, he would hoist himself back atop the leaderboard and certainly in the thick of things heading to the weekend, which is always a goal at a tournament where only the fittest survive. Nonetheless, despite his lone birdie at the difficult 18th (his birdie was only the seventh at No. 18 all day), it will be difficult for him not to dwell on what could have been.

Mickelson prides himself on his preparation for big events such as the Open, and studies the greens as few others do. On Friday, he had all the information he needed; he simply didn’t perform well on the test. His prep goes well beyond the greens, too. At one point during his warmup session, 90 minutes before his appointed 3:41 p.m. tee time, Mickelson turned to his trusted caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, to inquire where the wind direction would be on the first tee.

"It should be a little from left to right," he told Mackay. Bones nodded in agreement. Mickelson went on explain how he wanted to hit his tee shot a little farther than he did Thursday so that he could have a good angle coming in with his approach shot.

It’s all well and good in the planning room, but all the homework and strategy went for naught as he drew an opening iron shot into a right-side fairway bunker.

Ok, so what's Plan B, Bones?

The bottom line, though, is that Mickelson is right where he wants to be at the midway point of the U.S. Open, his fifth major in his sight, and he even caught a break in being able to complete his second round shortly before darkness. A conversation was held with the group ahead, with three players standing aside in the 18th fairway to allow Keegan Bradley, who was going to miss the cut, to hit his tee shot at 18. By rule, that meant Bradley, Mickelson and Steve Stricker (who shot 69 and is tied for third at level par) could finish the round and not return first thing in the morning.

“That enabled us a few extra hours of sleep,” Stricker said. “It’s a big break for us to finish and get the extra rest, especially on a week like this one.”

This weekend marks the fifth time that Mickelson, competing in his 23rd national Open, will enter the weekend at a U.S. Open in third place or better. Two of those times (1999 at Pinehurst and 2004 at Shinnecock Hills) he finished runner-up; he also was a runner-up at Bethpage Black (twice, in 2002 and ’09) and Winged Foot (2006).

The silver medal a golfer receives for finishing second is quite nice, but Mickelson has more of those than he needs, and it’s not what he came all the way to Philadelphia to collect.

“I just like being in the mix,” said Mickelson, who will turn 43 Sunday. “The way I’m striking the ball, and the way the putter feels, even though I didn’t show it today, I’m excited for the weekend.”

-- David Dusek contributed to this report

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