Phil Mickelson isn't in the top 15 for birdies made or fairways hit. He isn't leading the tournament in greens in regulation or putting. At one point, he went 29 holes between birdies. Yet somehow, Mickleson will begin the final round of the U.S. Open with a one-stroke lead.
How has he done it? For one, Mickelson managed to tame Merion's brutal closing stretch, something few other players have been able to do. The final five holes of Merion's second nine have played as one of the most difficult five-hole stretches in U.S. Open history. They account for five of the nine toughest holes on the course this week, combining to play 2.26 strokes over par.
Mickelson, however, is 1-under on those holes this week, something only Steve Stricker can match among players currently in the top 10. The nine players currently within five strokes of Mickelson's lead have combined to play the stretch from the 14th to the 18th at 26 over par. Luke Donald and Justin Rose are each 6-over on that stretch this week. Mickelson would be even better there if not for some bad luck on No. 18 on Saturday. His approach shot landed on the front of the green but rolled through and into the second cut, leaving him with an almost impossible chip. He was still just half an inch away from saving par.
No. 17 and No. 18 have been played 768 times so far and the two holes have yielded 28 total birdies. Mickelson has two of them. While many players near the top of the leaderboard were merely trying to get into the clubhouse without taking any more damage on Saturday, Mickelson took over the lead with just the 17th birdie of the week at No. 17. It would be tough to play the hole better than he did on Saturday, drilling a 4-iron before putting his birdie putt in the center of the cup.
If Mickelson can continue to play the final stretch well, it may just win him his first U.S. Open. Analysts like to say par is a good score at the U.S. Open, but when it comes to the finishing holes at Merion, par is a great score. When Mickelson stepped to the 14th tee, he was in a tie for fourth place at 1-under. Five holes later he was still 1-under but was at the top of the leaderboard.
Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel, Rose and Donald all dropped out of red figures on the last two holes. Mahan, Schwartzel and Rose finished bogey-bogey while Donald finished with a bogey at No. 17 and a double-bogey at No. 18.
Given how bunched the leaderboard is right now, there is a good chance the 2013 U.S. Open will come down to the final few holes and right now no one is playing those holes better than Mickelson.