Friday 23 February 2018

Irish challenge snuffed out as Mickelson set for first US Open victory

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson

Karl MacGinty at Merion

PHIL MICKELSON is primed to pick up the birthday gift and Father’s Day present of his dreams in today’s final round of the US Open at Merion.

The iconic American also will satisfy his nation’s desire for a Disney-style climax should he convert his one-stroke lead after 54 holes of carnage on the East Course at Merion into a long-awaited first victory at this championship .

Mickelson, who turns 43 today, was the only player under par after a third round 70, while Irish hopes of a third US Open title in four years faded as Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington tumbled out of contention following five-over par 75’s yesterday .

Nine behind Mickelson on eight-over par, Harrington and World No 2 McIlroy, who have won five Majors between them, still are expected to scrap hard for pride of place in the top-10 .

Though South Africa’s 2011 Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel and Lefty’s US Ryder Cup colleagues are snapping at his heels, Mickelson is looking forward to “a fun day” as he bids to join legends like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino, on the honours list at Merion .

Runner-up a record five times in 21 previous appearances at his national championship, Mickelson is not daunted by today’s date with destiny. “I love being in the thick of it,” he explained .

“I’ve had opportunities in years past and it’s been so much fun, even if it was heart-breaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide,” added the left-hander, whose swashbuckling nature too often led to his undoing at golf’s most relentless Major .

This week he’s left his driver and the so-called ‘Phrankenwood’ he developed for Augusta out of the bag, carrying instead an ordinary 3-wood and five wedges to suit the particular challenge of the East Course .

Mickelson’s preparation for this championship was unorthodox .

He flew from Philadelphia to his home in Southern California to attend his daughter’s eighth grade graduation on Wednesday evening and, after an overnight flight in his Gulfstream jet, arrived back at Merion literally within hours of his early morning tee time on Thursday .

However, his performance on the golf course has been patient and conservative, especially yesterday as Mickelson struggled on the front nine to get his short game or his putter going and slipped off the pace with bogeys at holes three and five.

Resisting inevitable temptation to push for birdies, he ploughed on, relying on his game to come round. When it did, Mickelson refused to be discouraged when a series of decent putts for birdie refused to drop.

“Today I hit a number of putts that didn’t quite go in,” explained Mickelson, whose faith eventually was rewarded on 17 when he rolled-in a 10-footer for birdie to ease ahead of co-leader Luke Donald, who made bogey.

While Mickelson made bogey five at the monster 530 yards 18th hole, which plays even longer when you have to hit a fairway wood off the tee, an ugly double-bogey dropped Donald back into a share of fourth on one-over with fellow Englishman Justin Rose and American Billy Horschel.

The greatest threat to Mickelson probably is posed by putting specialist Stricker, bidding at age 46 to become the oldest winner in US Open history was boosted by his 69 yesterday. Aussie Jason Day, three-back after an impressive 68, is another who could make an impact.

Yet Mickelson is able and confident, saying: “I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a US Open. My ball-striking is better than it’s ever been. My putting is better than it’s been in years and I feel very comfortable on this golf course – it’s tough but I love it.”       The challenge of Tiger Woods foundered under a torrent of missed putts, the World No 1 taking no fewer than 36 in his third round.

With four victories on the World Golf Championship and PGA Tour stage to his name already this year, it’s remarkable how Tiger’s form simply melted away on the greens at Memorial and Merion.

Playing together yesterday afternoon, Woods and McIlroy both opened with birdie and Tiger would shoot no more, stumbling to seven bogeys instead on his way to a 76.

McIlroy came into this championship hoping to find confidence, consistency and momentum, qualities he lacked in a staccato season. However, Merion, in US Open mode, have given nobody, not even Mickelson, a comfortable ride this week.

“If you’re not on your game a hundred per cent, you get on the wrong side of the greens and it’s just frightening, because I didn’t feel I played too badly,” said the Holywood native.

Harrington, meanwhile, seemed to be powering into contention once again at the US Open as he played his opening eight holes in one-under, easing to within three strokes of the tournament lead.

However, bogeys at nine and 11, followed by a calamitous seven after hitting his tee shot out of bounds at the par four 14th, plus another dropped shot at the last, relegated Harrington to a share of 33rd on nine-over, tied with Tiger and one behind McIlroy.

Sergio Garcia knocked three tee shots out of bounds on his way to a nightmare 10 on the 15th hole yesterday.

Combined with his quadruple-bogey eight there on Thursday after hitting one ball out of bounds, the Spaniard has played No 15 in 10-over … yet Garcia shares 44th place on 11-over par after yesterday’s 75.

For the record, Garcia hooked another drive OB onto Golf House Road from the 14th tee in round one!       Irish Walker Cup hopeful Kevin Phelan, 22, goes into the closing round in a tie for 65th on 16-over after an exhausting 27-holes yesterday. He completed the final nine of his second round 77 then headed back out in the afternoon, posting a 78.

Michael Kim born in Seoul but resident in California, was leading amateur on four-over after a third round 71. The slight 19-year-old actually dropped four shots in the final three holes of the 25 he played on a marathon third day of this championship.

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