SIX-TIMES runner-up Phil Mickelson was just one shot off the clubhouse lead when he finished his third round of the US Open at Pinehurst.
But, although the chances of him actually tasting victory today to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in having won all four major titles were remote to say the least, the Open champion had not lost his sense of humour.
“If I play well tomorrow, if I hit it better and make some putts, I think I can shoot four or five under, end around even par and finish second again,” Mickelson joked after a 72 containing three bogeys and just one birdie.
“I’ll play a good solid round tomorrow, not really worry about the results and see if I can finish the year strong.”
One of the reasons for Mickelson’s relaxed attitude to the tournament he so desperately wants to win was the ongoing performance of Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who took a record-equalling lead into the third round.
Successive rounds of 65 meant Kaymer had equalled the lowest halfway total in major championship history (130), as well as eclipsing the US Open record of 131 set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011. The 29-year-old’s six-shot advantage over American Brendon Todd also matched the championship record shared by Tiger Woods (2000) and McIlroy (2011), but tournament officials were doing their best to get Kaymer to come back to the pack.
No rain had fallen overnight as it did on Thursday to soften the greens and the pin positions tucked close to the edge of almost every green prompted 2010 winner Graeme McDowell to write on Twitter: “Moving day here at @usopengolf but looking at the pin positions level par makes a move today. #patience #grindmode.”
Speaking after a round of 74, veteran American Kenny Perry said: “It was a golf course of 18 of the toughest pins I’ve ever seen. It was probably the hardest set-up I’ve ever experienced in a major championship.”
Those sentiments were borne out by some of the early completed scores which saw Boo Weekley shoot 80, Russell Henley 82 and Japan’s Toru Taniguchi an 18-over-par 88 which contained six pars, seven bogeys, four double bogeys and a triple bogey.
And Kaymer was soon in trouble with a three-putt bogey on the second followed by another bogey on the fourth, although he did superbly well to limit the damage after his tee shot finished up against a mound of pine needles and forced him to take a penalty drop.
Another pulled drive on the par-five fifth found the “native area” left of the fairway, but Kaymer produced a stunning approach to five feet and holed for eagle to get back to 10 under par and a seven-shot lead over the American trio of Brandt Snedeker, Erik Compton and Kevin Na.
England’s Matt Fitzpatrick, the only amateur to make the cut in his last tournament before turning professional, came to the 18th needing a par to break 80 but managed one better, holing from 10 feet for birdie to complete a 78.
The 19-year-old from Sheffield, who will make his professional debut in the Irish Open next week, said: “I didn’t play particularly well, but at the same time I never felt like anything went for me. I felt I was quite unlucky.
“I think it’s the most relaxed I felt on the course, so you would expect the golf to be all right, but it was just one of those days.
“A couple of tees are forward but the ones that are forward don’t really make too much difference, but there’s a few that are back and they make a big difference.
“I probably played similar to yesterday and the day before, I didn’t hole any putts of any sort apart from on the last.”
Despite the tough conditions – or perhaps because of them – USGA executive director Mike Davis said tournament officials were pleased with the tournament’s return to Pinehurst. “We are delighted with it,” he told NBC. “It’s a different type of US Open from 1999 and 2005 here, but in a good way. It’s still a great comprehensive test of golf and the players have to hit all the shots.
“They have more options off the tee but they still have to get on the Donald Ross-designed turtleback greens.”