Mickelson in hunt for another major win

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lefty shared the lead with Kenneth Ferrie after three rounds.

MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- After two heartbreaking U.S. Opens in New York, Phil Mickelson might finally give his faithful something to really cheer.

On a torturous day that stirred memories of the infamous "Massacre at Winged Foot" in 1974, Mickelson was flawless on the back nine and surged into a share of the lead Saturday at the U.S. Open with a 1-under 69.

All that stands in his way of a third straight major -- something only Tiger Woods has done in the last 50 years -- is 18 holes and an unheralded Englishman playing in his first U.S. Open. Kenneth Ferrie held on as long as he could until badly missing a 6-foot par putt on the final hole to join Mickelson at 2-over 212.

It was the highest 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open since Winged Foot 32 years ago, when Tom Watson led at 3-over 213. That was the year Hale Irwin won at 7-over 287, the year that gave Winged Foot its reputation as one wicked test of golf.

And it sure lived up to it on this steamy Saturday afternoon.

Steve Stricker held on to his tenuous lead for eight holes until he started missing fairways and limped home to a 76. Colin Montgomerie dropped five shots on his first four holes, then steadied himself for a 75 that kept alive faint hopes of a first major.

Padraig Harrington needed a birdie on the 18th hole to catch Mickelson, but made a mess of it. He barely made contact out of the deep rough, moving the ball only about 15 yards into the fairway. Once he got out of a greenside bunker, he three-putted for a triple bogey that sent him spiraling down the leaderboard.

Mickelson was immune to such struggles on the back nine.

He holed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole and a slippery 15-footer on the 16th that sent the New York gallery into a frenzy, one of the few times all day they had reason to unleash their unbridled support of their beloved Lefty.

Mickelson's 10-foot birdie try on the 18th ran 5 feet by the cup, but he made that for par and walked off the green with a tip of the cap.

Vijay Singh had to make a 30-foot par putt to stay in the hunt, only three shots behind. Jim Furyk bogeyed two of the last three holes and was another shot back.

Woods is long gone, having missed the cut in a major for the first time in his professional career. And considering this is only the fourth major Ferrie has played -- and his first on a weekend -- this U.S. Open is Mickelson's for the taking. He wasn't ready to grab the trophy sitting next to him in a television interview, though.

"I want to win this trophy," he said. "But I've got 18 holes. I've got a lot of work to do."

Geoff Ogilvy shot 72 to finish at 3-over 213. Singh and Ian Poulter, who each shot 70, joined Stricker and Montgomerie at 215.

Ten players were separated by four shots, with four of them having won majors -- Mickelson, Singh, Furyk and Mike Weir, who took double bogey out of the bunker on the 18th hole for a 71 that left him in group at 216 with Furyk and Harrington.

But the focus is squarely on Mickelson.

"Somebody told me today on the course I was 'the man,'" Ferrie said. "I guess Phil is a bigger man."

New Yorkers fell in love with Lefty at Bethpage Black when he was a sympathetic figure in a losing battle with Woods at the 2002 U.S. Open. He broke their hearts two years later at Shinnecock Hills, tied for the lead until a double bogey on the 71st hole. Even after his breakthrough at the 2004 Masters, the connection between Mickelson and New York was strong.

A victory Sunday would make him only the 15th player to capture three legs of the Grand Slam.

"He's got the opportunity of doing what Tiger did, winning three majors in a row," Montgomerie said. "That's a big feat."

Mickelson climbed into the lead the way Woods has done so many times, by making just enough birdies and letting everyone else around him collapse in a series of errors.

Consecutive bogeys closed out his front nine in 36 and left him five shots behind. But that was the last of his mistakes, and it was almost as though Mickelson could sense the carnage around him. He played aggressively but in control, firing at flags and giving himself birdie putts on the final eight holes.

No one else had it nearly that easy.

Ogilvy had a brief share of the lead until a three-putt from 60 feet on the 13th, followed by a poor wedge into the bunker for another bogey. Stricker finally went away when he was buried in grass so thick on the 14th hole that he only moved it about 20 yards into more rough and took double bogey.

Weir, the only player besides Woods and Mickelson to win the Masters over the last six years, pumped his fist when he birdied the 16th to get to 4 over par. But his approach to the 18th wavered just enough to go from great to a bunker, and he blasted out over the green. The Canadian pitched onto the green and two-putted for a double bogey.

"Obviously, they came back, they made a bogey here or there, but that's to be expected," Mickelson said. "If you can make five or six pars, you're going to move up the board."

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