• US Open, Round Three

Desperate finish not necessarily the end for Donald

Alex Dimond at Merion June 16, 2013
Luke Donald cut a dejected figure on Saturday - but he still has 18 holes to play © AP

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Golf - particularly under the magnifying glass of a major championship - is frequently less about technique (although that plays a significant part) than mental fortitude.

You have to be able to hit the golf shot you want to, when you need to, in order to make the field at a major. Many players can do that - but not all of them can continue to do that when faced with pressure or adversity or - worst of all - suddenly confronted with the alarmingly real prospect of finally achieving a lifelong dream.

On Saturday, on almost the same spot where Ben Hogan crystallised his legacy 63 years ago, Luke Donald saw his chances of winning the 113th US Open take a shuddering blow to the jaw. Only time will tell whether the Englishman will be able to climb back off the canvas and produce a remarkable comeback.

For 16 holes at Merion, Donald played better golf than anybody at the business end of the leaderboard. He avoided mistakes of the tee, and consistently put himself in position on the greens. He missed three great birdie looks in the space of five holes … and still held a one-shot lead heading to the 17th.

Then, Merion took her pound of flesh. Major championship courses have long been considered too, well, long for a moderate hitter like Donald - the East Course is far from a behemoth, but its closing two holes certainly are. 253 yards and 530 yards, they finally posed questions Donald could not quite answer.

Two poor swings with a two-iron, and Donald found himself two shots behind - when moments earlier he had been one shot clear and comfortable.

"It was both yardages I had to get a little extra out of the two-iron," Donald bemoaned. "And my poor swings is when I attack too hard from the top and I get out of sync and they go right. Unfortunately, those holes are playing tough.

"But I should have done better. It was disappointing."

The stumbling finish was compounded by how his playing partner, Phil Mickelson, navigated the stretch. With the darkness coming in, the temperature dropping, and the ball flying less through the air, almost every player in the final few groups was bogeying the 17th. Mickelson, one of the last to take it on, drew his four-iron from the bag and knocked his attempt to eight feet - making a two where everyone else was posting four.

"I just stood there and admired it, it was one of the best shots I've ever hit," Mickelson enthused afterwards. "I mean it just was right down the centre of the green and I was hoping it would kind of get the right bounces and so forth and it did. It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it."

Yet, despite all that, Donald remains only two shots behind. Two shots is nothing on this course - almost every player has said so. Justin Rose is on the same score as Donald but, because he did not finish quite so badly, he was able to look at the positives of his situation.

"I feel like I'm in great position," he said. "If you would have said to me, Thursday morning, 'Hey, this is where you're going to be entering Sunday', I would absolutely have taken it."

Donald and Rose are locked at one-over but, if Donald can get his head straight, it is the former who is the best chance of a British victory on Sunday. He has played the better golf over the three days, he just does not quite have the results to show it.

Donald has to remind himself that only an all-time bad lie in the rough, coupled with one of the greatest shots of a four-time major champion's career, are what separate him from the 54-hole lead here.

Just as he lost two shots in the space of a few minutes on Saturday, so he can gain them come Sunday.

"One or two shots on this golf course can disappear in a heartbeat," Rose noted. "There's a lot of momentum swings out here."

Donald - or Rose - has no real reason to fear anyone else on the leaderboard. Charl Schwartzel has the pedigree (and a classic golf swing), but he's operating with a new putting routine that points to a certain discomfort on the greens, and could easily falter under pressure. Billy Horschel, confident as he is, has never been in this position - and has the sort of high swing tempo that traditionally gets out of sync more easily under pressure.

Hunter Mahan, as purely as he hits his irons, has choked in almost every truly high-stakes situation he has ever found himself in (when it comes to Ryder Cups, he's almost the anti-Poulter).

Steve Stricker, in semi-retirement, is desperate to win a major - but has so many years of failure to recall even he does not sound like he thinks he can do it.

"It would mean a lot. It really would," Stricker said after moving within a single shot of Mickelson. "But it's going to be a challenge tomorrow. I'm not the longest hitter in the field."

And Phil Mickelson? Yes, Mickelson has played impressively all week - but five runner-up finishes in the tournament he is most desperate to win have surely left some residual scare tissue. Sam Snead, the PGA Tour's all-time leading tournament winner, missed out on a few US Opens earlier in his career and never recovered - becoming adamant he was cursed in the event as the agonising losses added up.

Snead never won the tournament he craved above all others.

A repeat of the start like Mickelson made on Saturday, going backwards as the putts ran by the cup, and who knows what he might start to think.

"When you look at Phil, he started winning majors around 34 or 35," Donald, 35, reflected. "So I think that I have some time on my side, luckily, in this game."

That's a dangerous way to start thinking, though. Mickelson has crushed English hopes before - standing in the way in perhaps Lee Westwood's best chance of a major victory at the Masters back in 2010. Westwood has contended since, but never with quite the same prospects of victory.

Donald has never been in such a promising position before. Considering it could be another decade before a major visits another course shorter than 7,000 yards, he may not get one again.

"I want to win majors," Donald concluded. "I got to No. 1 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."

It's within his grasp, if he finds the right approach. The advantage of such misfortune befalling him on Saturday is easy to find: It wasn't on Sunday. He still has time to make amends.

Donald has shown the technique this week. Now he needs to show the mental fortitude.

If he does, he could easily be feeling entirely different emotions on the 18th green come Sunday evening.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk