It's Sunday at the 2013 U.S. Open, where a loaded leaderboard is full of American and International stars. Most of the players near the top of the leaderboard are accomplished and proven commodities who are still grinding for their first major. Two, Phil Mickelson and Charl Schwartzel, already have major wins and are in prime position for another career-defining victory. The talents chasing those two are in comparable positions to Adam Scott, an elite world-class player who had mutliple close calls at the majors and was dogged by a resume full of wins and earnings but without a major title.
The U.S. Open is unlike any other major in that it's extremely difficult to make an upward move in just 18 holes. The most likely path to getting in contention is holding on at even par -- or perhaps getting a few fortunate breaks to finish a few shots under par -- and then hoping that the players ahead of you come apart, carding big numbers and dropping back to the field. With that dynamic in play, here are some "power rankings" of players with the best chance to win on Sunday at Merion.
1. Phil Mickelson (1-under) -- The five-time U.S. Open runner-up is the most accomplished player on the leaderboard, but he's also the most volatile and has a cursed Sunday history at America's national championship. Casting all the past U.S. Open baggage aside, Mickelson seems to have figured out Merion, picking his spots to go for birdie but otherwise keeping it in between the lane lines and playing conservatively. The chasers behind him aren't exactly no-names, with some of the most consistently good Euro and American golfers within two shots. But after sleeping on the lead each day this week, and learning to navigate Merion's brutal five finishing holes with success, Phil will finally capture that white whale of his career. Besides, there's no such thing as curses.
2. Charl Schwartzel (even-par) -- There are certainly better stories on the leaderboard that the media's ready to gobble, but no better players. Schwartzel's been in contention on a weekly basis this season, regrouping from a lackluster 2012 tour. In what is the most intense and toughest test of golf in the world, Schwartzel is unflinching and can deal best with the bogey or worse that is sure to creep up on Sunday. The quiet South African is comparable to Angel Cabrera, another relatively unknown but unflappable international player who always shows up to win majors.
3. Justin Rose (1-over) -- The No. 5 player in the world finished with back-to-back bogeys to drop out of a share of the lead, but his tee-to-green game is the best of the contenders. What he does with the putter when he gets there, however, is the bigger question -- particularly on a Sunday at the U.S. Open. But of all the Euros -- there are 10 tied for 16th or better -- Rose has the best form. His career began with that incredibly impressive fourth-place finish at the British as an amateur in 1998. But he wandered in obscurity, losing his game before emerging again as one of the best in the world. He's been close at the majors multiple times in the last five years, but his iron game into some nasty Sunday pins today will provide him with his best opportunity yet.
4. Luke Donald (1-over) -- Much like Rose, Donald gave it all away coming into the clubhouse on Sunday with a bogey and double bogey to drop three shots and out of a share of the lead. Donald's been on top of the leaderboard throughout Friday and Saturday, getting to 4-under on two different occasions. The former No. 1 player in the world has accomplished everything -- top rankings, a money title in America, a money title in Europe, anchor of Ryder Cup wins -- but is still without a major. Given all his success, it's the persistent question that dogs him each and every major week, only adding to the pressure. The pin placements on Sunday are brutal, with most cups less than five paces from the edge. A short game chipping up and onto the green will be essential, and Donald is regarded as having the best short game in the world. That will keep him around all day, but can he wash out the ugly taste from that finish Saturday night?
(Credit: Andrew Redington)
5. Steve Stricker (even-par) -- Aside from Mickelson, the press would become weak in the knees if Stricker was in contention down the stretch and converted. The All-American dad on Father's Day, who's cut down drastically on his schedule this season, forgoing cash for family time back home in Wisconsin. The aging 46-year-old who's come so close but is just about out of chances. The narratives are all there.
Stricker is the oldest player in contention, but that's not exactly a new position for him given the career resurgence he's had in his 40s as the best putter on the planet. Since 2006, he's made the cut in 24 of the 27 majors he's played in and finished inside the top 10 six times. He's always around on Sunday, but this is his best chance, coming off a miraculous back nine 32 on Saturday night that put him one shot off the pace. He's unlikely to bomb out early and go away, but can he steady the nerves with the typically deadly putter to convert a couple birdies and par saves?
6. Hunter Mahan (even-par) -- Like Stricker, Mahan is one of the elite American golfers, playing in multiple Ryder cups and winning some of the biggest events on the PGA Tour. But he's still without a major and will definitely be grinding in the final group paired with Mickelson. Mahan had been lurking in the background all week, not really a focus of the broadcast until late Saturday when he reeled off four birdies in seven holes to jump to the top of the leaderboard. He, like Rose and Donald, finished bogey-bogey on the last to drop back but was the first in the house with an even-par score to lock up a spot in that final pairing. And that's one reason why I've listed the other players ahead of Mahan -- a talented golfer who can feel the pressure more than others, playing in the whirlwind Phil show with the crowd and TV cameras going nuts around. It could make for a tough day.
7. Jason Day (2-over) -- Can Day make it back-to-back Aussies at the majors this year? He watched as close friend Adam Scott narrowly edged him out at Augusta, a venue where he's finished second and third in two of the past three years. He also has a second-place finish at the U.S. Open, albeit by a distant margin to Rory McIlroy back at Congressional. Three shots back, Day will need to get to work early and pick up some birdies to put pressure on the groups behind him. A major championship is likely in his future, but this Sunday will be an uphill climb given the talent ahead of him on the board.
8. Billy Horschel (1-over) -- The least-known commodity in the field, Horschel has been lighting up courses on Tour all season. But his most impressive, and historic feat, came on Friday when he went 18-for-18 hitting all greens in regulation. It was even more impressive than his first career win in New Orleans earlier this season, as it had never been done before and the USGA has already asked for a piece of memorabilia from Horschel for their little golf history museum. But that round is likely the high point for Horschel, who's playing in just his second major ever. With all the pressure on the bigger names, however, he could come out of nowhere and make a run late Sunday. The U.S. Open, particularly at the toughest venues, is known for producing relatively obscure champions.
9. Rickie Fowler (3-over) -- Decked in Oklahoma State orange, Fowler will be another young player making a run at his first major on Sunday. He was so far down the leaderboard that he actually started in the groups going off the back nine on Saturday, but the low-round of the day, a 67, pushed him all the way up into the top 10. He's four shots back of buddy Phil and in sole possession of ninth place. It's a significant margin to make up in 18 holes of U.S. Open golf, but we're seeing some of the players in the earlier wave getting two and three shots under par on the front nine. Fowler needs a comparable start and and then finish with a round at least as good as the 67 yesterday.
10. Charley Hoffman (wild card) (6-over) -- There are bigger names on the leaderboard lurking five or six shots back -- Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els -- but Hoffman's form this year and his ability to drain birdies this week make him my wild card pick to jump up near the lead. The U.S. Open is an entirely different beast than the Masters, where the saying goes that anyone within six shots of the lead on the back nine on Sunday still has a chance to win it. There's just not that much upward movement at the USGA's most prestigious title, where players grind to hang onto par. But Hoffman tied with three others for the most birdies made through three rounds. He's been hot over the past two months, so can he carry that form into Sunday and go low to pull off the upset? It's doubtful, but I think he's the best candidate.
So those are my official, moderately informed power rankings as the final pairings prepare for the final round in the toughest test in golf. Where did I go wrong, and who do you have winning the 113th U.S. Open?