PINEHURST — They filled the grandstand stretching along the first tee box at Pinehurst No. 2, and they stood in a crowd, five or six deep, on the other side of the putting green, craning their necks and standing on their toes for a view of Phil Mickelson on Saturday around noon.
“Go get ’em, Phil!” one man yelled while Mickelson walked to the tee to begin his third round in the U.S. Open.
“Come on, Phil!” said another, her voice rising above the crowd.
And on like that it went. He teed off, a long drive down the fairway, and the people went bonkers and Mickelson smiled and doffed his cap. Just imagine what it might have been like had he not started the day at 3-over par – 13 shots behind leader Martin Kaymer.
In some ways, Mickelson and Webb Simpson, his playing partner, created the dream Saturday pairing at the U.S. Open. Mickelson is one of the most beloved players in the sport and a six-time runner-up in this tournament, and Simpson is the 2012 Open champion who grew up in Raleigh and keeps a home in Charlotte.
The crowds that followed them around the course on Saturday were among the largest for any pairing – if not the largest. They were filled with people hoping, wishing for something to happen.
Mickelson hit his first drive down the middle of the fairway. His shot came to rest not far from a couple that stood close against the rope.
“I’d love for him to just rip off five birdies,” a man said.
“Me, too,” said the woman standing next to him before repeating it. “Me, too.”
Mickelson finished with pars on his first three holes. When he walked up to the green on No. 4, Mickelson was greeted by someone shouting encouragement from the grandstand.
“The greatest comeback in golf,” a man screamed. “Right here.”
But Mickelson finished with a par there, too, on his way to a 2-over 72. The galleries kept waiting. For a birdie, likely. For Mickelson to do something to show he might have a chance. In some ways, Mickelson did the same.
“I kept waiting,” he said later. “(I thought), ‘Well, I can’t get to this (pin), I’ll get to maybe the next hole. Can’t get to this one, I’ll get to the next hole.’ Finally, we got to the 18th and I’m like, ‘I can get to the pin.’ ”
That’s how it went: Mickelson settling for pars because that’s really all anyone could do on Saturday given the difficulty of the hole locations. He wound up making one birdie – one fewer than Simpson made, though Simpson negated those with five bogeys.
“Difficult,” Simpson said after finishing with a 3-over par 73. “Much, much more difficult than the first two days.”
They’ll both enter the final round in the 30s on the leaderboard – Mickelson tied for 30th and Simpson tied for 35th.
For Mickelson, his place among the leaders is likely especially disappointing. Earlier in the week, he spoke of having never been more optimistic of his chances to win a U.S. Open. Now another year will pass without the championship that has eluded him.
Even so, he walked up the 18th fairway to an ovation more reserved for a tournament leader.
“Phil, you’re beautiful,” one man yelled after his tee shot on 18.
“We still love you, Phil,” a woman screamed while he approached the 18th green.
Mickelson smiled at that one. He two-putted for par, handed his ball to Zachary Puryear, a 9-year-old who lives in Raleigh, and then walked down to the scoring area. He left hoping to shoot a 4- or 5-under on Sunday. Maybe with that, Mickelson said, he could “end around even, (and) finish second again.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter