ARDMORE, Pa. - Once more Phil Mickelson is on the brink, with the chance to win the championship he covets, America's national championship, the U.S. Open.
Saturday afternoon, with the lead slipping through one pair of hands after another, as if it was the white sand in the bunkers of famed Merion Golf Club, Mickelson eventually ended up where he had been at the end of the previous two rounds: in first.
Mickelson shot a par 70 for a 54-hole total of 1-under 209 on a course which has given everyone fits. No one else is under par.
Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker are tied for second a stroke back at 210. Justin Rose, Luke Donald and rookie Billy Horschel are next at 1-over 211.
The golfers first and second in the world rankings are far back. No. 2 Rory McIlroy shot 75 Saturday and is 8 over for the tournament. No. 1 Tiger Woods shot 76 and is 9 over.
Five times Mickelson has finished second in the Open, four of those times in tournaments played in the greater New York area: twice at Bethpage Black and once each at Shinnecock Hills and Winged Foot. He also was runner-up in 1999 to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst.
The only time he led going into the final round, as he will Sunday, was in 2006 at Winged Foot when he shared first with the little known Englishman David Ferrie. That Sunday, needing only a par on the last hole to win, he pushed his drive onto a hospitality tent, resulting a double bogey and a one-shot loss to Geoff Ogilvy. Mickelson said of himself then, "I am such an idiot."
What he said Saturday was, "It's going to be a fun day. I love being in the thick of it. I've had opportunities in years past, and it has been so much fun, even though it's been heartbreaking to come so close a number of times
"But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open."
Mickelson will be 43 Sunday, also Father's Day, a holiday particularly meaningful to a man with three daughters. His eldest, Amanda, graduated Wednesday night from a middle school north of San Diego where the Mickelsons live. Mickelson flew across country to hear Amanda speak at the graduation ceremony, then flew back to Pennsylvania, arriving 3:30 a.m. Thursday for a 7:10 a.m. teeoff.
"At 43," said Mickelson of his condition, "I feel I'm in better shape than I've been for years."
Mickelson has 41 PGA Tour victories in his career including four majors -- three Masters and a PGA Championship.
South African Schwartzel, 28, who won the 2011 Masters, was in first until bogeys on 17 and 18, part of the finishing stretch of holes that have affected others in Opens at Merion.
"I think whenever you shoot under par on Saturday at the U.S. Open," said Schwartzel after a 69, "you can't be too disappointed . . . There's no hole where you can ease back. [Sunday] is going to be a tough day. You're going to have to give every shot all your attention."
Mahan, 31, tied for sixth in the 2009 Bethpage Open, while Stricker, 46, who no longer plays full time, had fifth-place Open finishes in 1998 and 1999.
"I didn't know what to expect coming into this week," said Stricker, who hadn't played competitively since The Players in May. "But I feel I'm in a good place mentally. I feel like I'm doing the right thing by not playing. I'm enjoying my time at home. And I'm happy the way I'm striking the ball."
"I don't know what the number is," said Mickelson about what he needs to shoot to win. "But I do believe I've got an under-par round in me. [Sunday] has got the makings to be something special, but I still have to go out and perform and play my best golf."