Tuesday 20 March 2018

McIlroy and Woods fall out of contention at Merion as English duo thrive

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in action yesterday
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in action yesterday

Phil Casey

Luke Donald and Justin Rose will aim to claim their first major titles and end a 43-year wait for an English winner of the US Open today - but doing so could make them the most unpopular men in America.

The Ryder Cup team-mates go into the final round at Merion just two shots off the lead, but it is a lead held by five-time tournament runner-up Phil Mickelson, who celebrates his 43rd birthday and Father's Day on Sunday.

Mickelson started the week by flying home to California on Monday as torrential rain closed the practice facilities at Merion, and then attended his daughter's eighth-grade graduation on Wednesday evening before flying back to Philadelphia overnight in his private jet in time for a 7:11am start on Thursday.

Remarkably he shot an opening 67 and followed that up with rounds of 72 and 70 to finish one under par, the only man in red figures as Merion's East Course - feared to be too short by modern standards at 6,996 yards and staging the US Open for the first time since 1981 - more than held its own.

Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and American duo Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker were Mickelson's closest challengers on level par, with Rose, Donald and Billy Horschel another stroke back on one over.

Tony Jacklin was the last Englishman to win the US Open back in 1970, with Nick Faldo the last to win any of the four major titles when he triumphed in the 1996 Masters.

The chances of those streaks coming to an end looked good throughout the third day with Ian Poulter also high on the leaderboard until hitting his drive out of bounds on the 15th to double-bogey, while Donald bogeyed the 17th and double-bogeyed the last after twice tangling with heavy rough.

Rose also dropped shots at the last two holes but remains firmly in contention with Merion's fearsome closing stretch making nothing a certainty in Sunday's final round.

"I felt a little bit hard done by on 17 for sure," Rose said after his round of 71.

"I hit a great three-iron that pitched in the middle of the green and just trickled off a swale into that really terrible lie where you're really hoping you can make contact.

"On the 18th I should have made par but it was a poor swing with a four-iron. But that is Merion for you. I'll be in a situation tomorrow where I can play a clean few holes to finish and post a number and you never know.

"One or two shots on this golf course can disappear in a heartbeat. I feel like I'm in great position. If you would have said to me on Thursday morning this is where you're going to be entering Sunday, I would absolutely have taken it.

"Majors are a step up for me now. I've been lucky enough to win quality PGA Tour events and lucky enough to win a WGC event. So the trend for me is into the Majors now."

Donald has yet to record a top-10 finish in the US Open but held the outright lead after 16 holes only to fail to get up and down from a greenside bunker on the 17th and take six on the last.

"I should have done better," the 35-year-old said.

"It was disappointing but I'll take the positives out of today, a really solid 16 holes of golf that I played and I'm only two back.

"When you look at Phil, he started winning majors around 34 or 35 so I think that I have some time on my side, luckily, in this game. Of course that's my goal. I got to number one 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."

Mickelson, whose daughter Amanda was born the day after his first runners-up finish in 1999, was also second in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009, famously saying after a double bogey on the 72nd hole in 2006: "I just can't believe that I did that, I'm such an idiot."

"It's going to be a fun day tomorrow," he said after his round.

"I'm looking forward to it and the challenge of Merion. I love being in the thick of it.

"I have had opportunities to win and it's been fun even though it has been heartbreaking to let it slide, but I feel better equipped than ever and I feel very comfortable on this course.

"Given that I have had some major successes I feel as equipped as I could be. I don't think I feel any more pressure than anyone else who wants to win. But it would certainly mean a lot to me."

Poulter's round of 73 left him six off the lead on five over, with Paul Casey (71), Paul Lawrie (69) and Lee Westwood (69) all one shot further back, Lawrie having eagled his final hole - the 10th - from 40ft after driving the green.

Tiger Woods cut a frustrated figure after his chances of a 15th major title disappeared in the third round of the US Open at Merion.

Woods began the day just four shots off the lead and instantly reduced the deficit with a birdie at the first, but failed to make another and eventually carded a 76 which equalled his highest round in the tournament as a professional.

"It is certainly frustrating because I certainly was feeling like I was playing well this week and I just didn't make the putts I needed to make," said the world number one, whose last major win came five years ago at Torrey Pines.

"On the first two days I had like three three-putts and I was four shots off the lead, and I missed a boatload of putts within 10 feet. So I really wasn't that far off. If I clean up the round and don't three-putt, I'm one shot back starting out today."

Woods, who finished fourth in the US Masters in April, added: "At Augusta I was pretty close and I had the lead at one point and I hit that flag (on the 15th in the second round) and ended up in the water.

"I'm playing well enough to do it and unfortunately just haven't gotten it done."

Woods was playing alongside world number two Rory McIlroy for the third day in succession, but the illustrious duo were outscored by the third member of their group.

McIlroy birdied the first but then hit his tee shot on the second out of bounds on his way to a 75, while Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano carded a 72 to finish five over par.

"If you're not on your game a hundred percent, you get on the wrong side of the greens and it's just frightening because I didn't feel like I played too badly," McIlroy said.

"I missed a few shots here and there and I was trying on every shot out there and I was trying to get myself back into it, but it's tough.

"If you're just not a hundred percent on top of your game, it's going to expose some of your flaws or weaknesses.

"I've been working on the swing quite hard over the last few months, and it looks really good on camera. I just get on the course and I hit a couple of bad shots and I guess that it sort of makes you lose confidence a little bit during the round.

"It's just a bit of a struggle and it seems like I've had a few too many tournaments this year where I've struggled in one round or a couple of rounds and not been able to put it all together.

"I don't feel like it's too far away at all. It's just a matter of believing and staying patient and working hard and knowing that if you work on the right thing, you're going to turn it around."

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