ARDMORE, Pa. — For all those runner-up finishes, with so much heartache chasing the major he covets, Phil Mickelson has never had a better chance to win the U.S. Open.
It's the first time he has ever had the outright lead going into the final round. Of the nine players within five shots, only one has the experience of winning a major. And Tiger Woods went from contender to middle-of-the-pack by matching his worst U.S. Open score as a pro.
Despite a bogey on the final hole at Merion — the 18th was so tough it didn't yield a single birdie in the third round — Mickelson was the sole survivor to par Saturday with an even-par 70 that gave him a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
Mickelson celebrates his 43rd birthday Sunday — on Father's Day, no less. He left Merion on Monday and didn't return until three hours before his tee time on Thursday so he could attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter.
"It's got the makings to be something special," Mickelson said. "But I still have to go out and perform, and play some of my best golf."
He has been good enough to play 54 holes in 1-under 209.
And he was close to perfection when he stood on the par-3 17th hole with a 4-iron in his hand, 253 yards away from the orange wicker basket attached to the pin, the signature look at Merion. He was one shot behind Luke Donald until a pure swing and an 8-foot birdie putt gave him the lead.
"I just stood 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. It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it. That was fun to do that because that's just not a hole you expect to get one back."
Four others players who had been under par late in the round couldn't hang on.
Donald twice made poor swings with a 2-iron, and it cost him three shots. Mahan, Schwartzel and Justin Rose all finished bogey-bogey.
There was trouble everywhere at Merion, and it didn't take much to find it. One swing cost Ian Poulter, who drove out-of-bounds on the 15th. One decision cost Nicolas Colsaerts, who tried to hit a shot under a tree on the 18th and made triple bogey. That left Mickelson alone at the top for only the second time in a major — he won the 2006 Masters with the lead.
The U.S. Open, however, has been nothing but trouble for Lefty.
"I don't think I feel any more pressure than anybody else who wants to win ... the U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "This is a tournament for years I've had opportunities, I've come close to, and it would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf — certainly if I can play the way I have been."
Saturday was more about weeding out the pretenders for this U.S. Open — and one of them turned out to be Woods. He started out just four shots out of the lead, and made a bending, 12-foot birdie putt on the opening hole. It never got any better for the world's No. 1 player. He made seven bogeys the rest of the way and didn't add another birdie. It was the fourth time he shot 76 in the U.S. Open, but never when he started out so close to the lead. Now, he's 10 shots behind.
"It certainly is frustrating," said Woods, who has been stuck on 14 majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. "I'm playing well enough to do it, and unfortunately just haven't gotten it done."
The final hour might have been a sneak preview for Sunday. At one point, there were five players under par, and suddenly there was only Mickelson.
Donald made double bogey on the 18th hole from the middle of the fairway, trying to swing too hard on a 2-iron to get up the hill and beyond the false front of the green. He wound up in ankle-deep rough, so gnarly that his third shot squirted across the green and into more thick grass.
"I should have done better," Donald said. "It was disappointing, but I'll take the positives out of today — a really solid 16 holes of golf, and I'm only two back."