• US Open, Round Three

Mickelson in control as Donald throws away good work

Alex Dimond at Merion June 15, 2013
Luke Donald fell away at the end on Saturday, just as Phil Mickelson found a groove © AP

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A desperately ugly finish - along with a few missed short putts earlier in the day - saw Luke Donald drop out of the lead at the end of the third round of the US Open, as Phil Mickelson finished strongly to reclaim the initiative heading into Sunday's conclusion.

Donald held the lead for much of the latter part of Saturday's action, before an unsightly bogey, double-bogey finish cost him strokes at a crucial time.

Mickelson, in contrast, birdied the 17th to leapfrog to the top of proceedings - although a bogey at the last gave everyone else a lot more hope with 18 holes still to play.

US Open: Round Three Leaderboard

  • -1        Phil Mickelson
  • E        Hunter Mahan
               Steve Stricker
               Charl Schwartzel
  • +1        Luke Donald
               Justin Rose
                Billy Horschel
  • +2        Jason Day

Understandably downbeat, Donald said afterwards: "I should have done better, [the finish] was disappointing. But I'll take the positives out of today, a really solid 16 holes of golf that I played. I'm only two back."

Mickelson, in contrast, was raring to go again: "It's going to be a fun day tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to the test."

Behind Mickelson, a talented group of players are firmly in the hunt - Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel are all at level-par heading into Sunday, with Justin Rose tied with Donald and Billy Horschel at just one-over. Of that group, however, only Schwartzel has won a major before.

Not that such a statistic necessarily means anything - after all, two players who have won majors will not be a factor on Sunday. Playing about an hour ahead of the leaders, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods well and truly played their way out of contention after being a combined 11-over par.

To paraphrase Philadelphia's favourite fictional son, Rocky Balboa, it is clear that this tournament will not be over until it is over. Donald had outplayed and outscored Mickelson for almost the entire afternoon - but then everything turned on the 17th.

Trailing by one, Mickelson fired a four-iron to eight-feet at the 254-yard hole and duly drained the birdie putt. Donald, tasked with following that, found a front-right bunker and failed to get up and down.

Suddenly it was Mickelson with the one-shot advantage with one to play.

In the fading evening light, the two closing holes on the East Course were playing especially long - with the 530-yard 18th becoming almost impossible for the final players to par. Both Mickelson and Donald found the fairway with conservative drives but, unlike Ben Hogan before them, neither could find the treacherous green from long range. Donald put himself in the worst spot, short-siding himself after a tired swing, and - thanks to a horrid lie in the thick rough - eventually missed a eight-footer to avoid a double-bogey.

A par for Mickelson would perhaps have ended his playing partner's hopes there and then, but he too missed for his par to open the door just a little bit more for everyone else.

For much of the day the pace was set by Schwartzel, who stormed to the top of the leaderboard after a stretch of four birdies and four pars in eight holes that saw him become the first player to reach two-under overall. But the South African was one of many players to struggle to the finish - with bogeys at each of 17 and 18 seeing him settle for level-par overall after a round of 69.

Tiger Woods blasted his way out of contention © AP

Rose (70) too had his moments, picking up a fine birdie at the fourth to edge under-par for the day. But follow-up mistakes at the tricky fifth and sixth set him back - with two bogeys to close leaving him perhaps needing to engineer something when the players return to finish battle.

Mahan - who walked onto the first tee looking like he had just fallen out of a packet of sweets, such was his multi-coloured get-up - also tasted a major championship lead, thanks to four birdies on the back nine's first seven holes.

But he was yet another to fall foul of the 17th and 18th, settling for a round of 69.

It was the final group pushing the agenda, however, even after Horschel fell off the pace with three bogeys to the turn. Donald could have been leading by a handful of shots had he made easy birdie chances at 12, 13 and 15 - although the Englishman will perhaps point out he needed to hole a sizeable putt just to escape with a par at the 11th.

Those putts apart - and a failed lay-up from the rough at the sixth, one that also cost him a shot - he impressively limited mistakes, recording 12 pars on a day where you had to execute properly to even pick up one.

But that meant less after the finish, one he will try to quickly forget.

"They're long holes," was Donald's explanation for his troubles. "I'm standing on 17 and it's 253 yards, I got to carry that ridge at about 240. For me that's a lot, a huge, big two‑iron for me. Eighteen is 521 yards. It's just, they're long holes."

Luke Donald needed to move his ball to identify it ahead of his third shot on the 18th. He added: "The rough has been tough this week, but I've never seen a lie like that.

"I didn't deserve much better, I shouldn't have been over there, but if I had a decent lie, I probably would have had a putt for four."

Mickelson, in contrast, appeared all over the shop in the early stages - failing to capitalise on the positive energy coming from the crowd as he found himself unable to get up-and-down from a straightforward spot at the third, and then made a bogey in similar fashion at the fifth. Two birdies - at the amenable 10th and 11th - came just as he was in danger of losing touch, before that miraculous approach at 17 thrust him back into the lead.

"I just want to hit the green and make par and see if I could make a putt," he recalled. "But the four-iron I hit ... I just stood there and admired it, it was one of the best shots I've ever hit."

His finish was a slight disappointment, but the Merion crowd will be well and truly cheering for Mickelson on Sunday - and every other competitor already knows it.

"Let's go," he added. "I can't wait to get back out playing. I feel really good ball striking, I feel good on the greens, and I think that it's going take an under-par round tomorrow."

Hunter Mahan looked ridiculous, but played well © AP

Elsewhere, Ian Poulter began the third round three shots off the pace, and found himself edging more strongly into the hunt after birdies at the sixth and eighth moved him under par for the day. But, after failing to pick up shots around the scoreable holes, a tee-shot hooked out of bounds at the 15th sent him tumbling down the leaderboard.

He eventually finished five-over after a 73, two numbers matched by his playing partner Henrik Stenson.

It could have been worse for Poulter - he could have been Woods or McIlroy. The world's two best players started Saturday with birdies at the first - but that did not spark an anticipated charge, with both quickly stumbling down the leaderboard. McIlroy duly flailed his drive out of the bounds on the second, setting the tone for a 75 - and Woods only fared worse, missing putts left and right (but not centre) on the way to a 76.

Eight-over and nine-over respectively, their hopes of winning this tournament again are surely now over for another year.

One player who may still be hoping to win his first major, however, is Jason Day. The Australian was runner-up in this event two years ago to McIlroy, and has had his share of near-misses at the Masters too. Four-over at the start of the day, a 68 moved him up into the top-ten at two-over - although it would have been even better but for a missed 15-footer for par at the 18th.

The best round of the day belonged to Rickie Fowler - who started his day on the 11th and closed it with a birdie at the 10th, a three that allowed him to sign for a 67. Four back, Fowler will be hoping for a repeat performance on Sunday - perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that Webb Simpson overcame the same 54-hole deficit to win this tournament 12 months ago.

Sergio Garcia ran up a horror score at the 15th © Getty Images

Fowler played with Sergio Garcia, who endured an entirely different day. The Spaniard ran up a 10 (ten) at the 15th, doing remarkably well to go on and shoot a mere 75.

"Well what does that say about my game that I can make a 10?" Garcia noted. "Forget about the rest."

Occasionally heckled with "fried chicken" jibes during his round, Garcia is now 11-over.

The most enjoyable cameo of the day came from amateur Michael Kim, who briefly moved into a tie for third after four birdies in six holes after the turn. However, the 19-year-old could not keep that going - with a finish of three successive fives seeing him conclude one-over for the day, four-over for the championship.

"That's amazing. I couldn't imagine doing that at his age," Paul Casey, six-over for the event, said.

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Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk