ARDMORE, Pa. — Eighteen holes and everything a treacherous Merion Golf Club can throw at him are what separates Phil Mickelson from what he cherishes most as a pro golfer:
A U.S. Open championship.
Mickelson, who has known heartbreak of all kinds at the Open but never a victory, is the only player under par and takes a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Steve Stricker into Sundays final round.
Mickelson, tied for the lead with Billy Horschel at 1-under after the second round, shot an even-par 70 Saturday to stay that one tick below par.
Mickelsons litany of U.S. Open failures are nearly as legendary as the four major championships he has won (three Masters, one PGA Championship). By his own doing or simply being outplayed, the U.S. Open has always eluded him.
Now he has another chance to erase all that. He will face a Merion course that continues to confound most competitors, as it dries out from rain earlier this week and can become potentially more dangerous.
I love being in the thick of it, said Mickelson, who has a record five runner-up finishes at the Open. Ive had my opportunities before and I let it slip away. But I feel that Im as equipped as ever to play well (Sunday).
Mickelson was 1-over par through the front nine Saturday before he got things rolling. He came in with a 32 on the back nine, including three birdies, and a bogey on No. 18 prevented him from putting a bit more distance between he and the field.
Mickelson might have had a few more birdies, too, but a chip on No. 14 bounced off one of Merions famous red wicker-top pins, and two other birdie putts barely missed.
Schwartzel and Mahan both shot 69s that allowed them to stay close to Mickelson. Stricker, who has played just seven tournaments this season so he can spend more time with his family, had an even-par 70.
I really didnt know what to expect coming into this week, said Stricker, who hasnt played since the Players Championship in May. Ive been playing well at home, been hitting it well at home, but thats home. Its not out here.
Schwartzel and Mahan each bogeyed Nos. 17 and 18, or either one of them might be in the lead instead of Mickelson. But they both shot 69s.
Anytime you shoot under par on a Saturday at a U.S. Open, you cant be too disappointed, said Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters winner.
If there was a disappointed player, though, it might have been Luke Donald, who was 3-over on the final two holes bogey on No. 17, double-bogey on No. 18 to fall two behind Mickelson, tied for fifth with Justin Rose and Horschel.
Donald was near or at the top of the leader board all day before his six on the final hole.
I should have done better, said Donald. But Ill take the positives out of (Saturday), a really solid 16 holes and Im only two strokes back.
Tiger Woods shot himself out of contention with a 6-over 76 (his highest U.S. Open round as a pro) and will have to wait for Julys British Open to try to win his 15th major championship and get closer to Jack Nicklaus record 18.
Woods, who started the day four strokes behind the leaders, got off to a promising start with a birdie on No. 1 which would be his only birdie of the day. His round soon unraveled, with seven bogeys dotting his scorecard the rest of the way. Hes 9-over for the tournament, tied for 31st and 10 strokes behind Mickelson.
Its frustrating because I feel like Im playing well, said Woods. I just didnt make putts. I missed a boatload inside 10 feet.
The round of the day was turned in by Rickie Fowler, whose 3-under 67 moved him to 3-over for the tournament, tied for 12th.
But it all is setting up for Mickelson, who is chasing a title hes never won before.
Theres a low score out there, said Mickelson, who turns 43 Sunday. I dont know what it is, but I believe theres a below-par score in me. Its got the makings to be something special. But Ive still got to go out there and perform and play some of my best golf.
If he does, Mickelsons long, U.S. Open drought will likely be over.