Mickelson Seeks U.S. Open Birthday Gift With Final-Day Lead

Phil Mickelson is the only golfer under par during today’s final round of the U.S. Open and is confident he’ll snap a run of five runner-up finishes at the event.

“I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open,” Mickelson said yesterday after an even-par round at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. “My ball striking is better than it’s ever been. My putting is better than it has been in years, and I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it.”

Today, on Mickelson’s 43rd birthday, he’ll begin his final round at 1-under par, a stroke ahead of fellow Americans Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker and South African Charl Schwartzel. Mickelson and Mahan will tee off as the day’s final group at 3:20 p.m. local time. There’s a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms later this afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

Mickelson shot an even-par 70 yesterday, bogeying the 18th hole. He’s held or shared the lead after each round and has a chance to win his fifth major title and first U.S. Open.

Mahan and Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters Tournament champion, each bogeyed their final two holes to finish with 1-under rounds. Stricker had an even-par round with two birdies that offset a double-bogey at the ninth hole.

The 46-year-old Stricker has never won a major title and entered only six tournaments this year, opting to spend more time with his family.

‘Good Place’

“I’m in a good place mentally, I feel like I’m doing the right thing by not playing,” Stricker said after his round. “I’m enjoying my time at home, so it all makes sense in my mind and I guess that’s the most important thing.”

Englishman Luke Donald, playing with Mickelson, fell out of the lead yesterday when he bogeyed the 17th hole and Mickelson made birdie at the long par-3.

Donald then double-bogeyed the 18th to drop to 1 over, tied for fifth place with countryman Justin Rose and American Billy Horschel, who shared the lead with Mickelson at 1 under at the beginning of the round.

“I’ll take the positives out of today, a really solid 16 holes of golf that I played and I’m only two back,” 35-year-old Donald said. “I got to No. 1 in the world and I’ve won a great amount of tournaments around the world, but I would dearly love to win one of these.”

After rain delayed the first two rounds, 68 golfers returned to the course yesterday morning to finish the second round. The cut for weekend play was at 8-over par, with 73 players advancing.

Woods Falters

Tiger Woods, the top-ranked player in the Official World Golf Ranking, struggled to a third round of 76 on the par-70 course outside Philadelphia. He’s 8 over for the week after beginning today’s final round with a birdie. Woods played yesterday with second-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who finished at 8 over after a round of 75.

Mickelson flew back to the East Coast hours before his first round after attending a middle-school graduation ceremony for his oldest daughter in California. He shot a 3-under 67 to lead the tournament and he’s been in contention ever since.

Mickelson has won three of the four previous times he entered the final round of a major as the leader. He won the 2004 and 2006 Masters and the 2005 PGA Championship, while failing to win the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club, finishing tied for second after a final-round 74.

Today he’ll have the chance to celebrate his birthday -- on Fathers’ Day -- by winning an ever-elusive U.S. Open title.

“It’s got the makings to be something special, but I still have to go out and perform and play some of my best golf,” Mickelson said.

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