Through the front nine holes at Merion Golf Club, Phil Mickelson had missed a handful of putts by a combined inch and was starting to show some frustration, hands on hips, shaking his head.
Then he decided to cut out the middle man.
On No. 10, his wedge from 76 yards hit the edge of the green, hopped right and rolled straight into the cup, giving him an eagle and a huge shot of adrenaline on a helter-skelter afternoon at the 113th U.S. Open.
Great victories are often made of such dramatic stuff, the crowd roaring as Mickelson jumped up and down, shaking his fist. (His vertical leap is measured in single-digit inches, by the way). But there was still a long way to go and he still trailed the leader, Justin Rose, who quickly responded with a birdie.
Just past 6 p.m. EDT, Rose led at one under par with Mickelson at even par. Jason Day and Hunter Mahan followed at one over.
Rose had built momentum around the turn with a two birdies and a clutch chip-in for bogey on No. 11.
Still, Mickelson fans could be optimistic, knowing their man had not eagled a hole at the U.S. Open since 2009. More important, he had played close to par on Merion’s final five holes over the past three days while Rose had struggled on that same stretch.
There was something else to think about for a tournament that suffered from bouts of nasty weather last week – the wind picked up and rain began to fall, umbrellas popping out, as the leaders moved toward a potential nail-biter finish.
Justin Rose takes lead at even par | 2:40 p.m.
The last four U.S. Opens have been won by a golfer claiming his first victory in a major.
On Sunday at Merion, Justin Rose was looking to keep that recent tradition alive.
Through nine holes, Rose held a tentative lead at even par, thanks to three birdies against two bogeys on the course’s murderous front side. That qualified as a great start for a guy who has a few victories and more than $21 million in career winnings on the PGA Tour, and is looking for something better.
“Yeah, majors are a step up for me now,” he said. “Absolutely, the thing missing from the resume is a major.”
Another top golfer looking to break into the club, Jason Day, enjoyed a brief run with birdies at Nos. 8 and 10, then plunked one in the water at the 11th and hit a poor chip from the drop zone. A chip-in bogey left him at one over.
“I think I’ve come off some pretty average golf lately and I needed to pump myself up for this week and get in as early as I could to prepare for this week because I knew it was going to be tough,” he said. “Really, the majors are kind of where it’s at.”
If he could come back, Day would be only the second Australian to win an U.S. Open.
The lead group of Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson followed just behind Rose, literally and figuratively, at one over and two over, respectively.
Mahan would be a first-timer if he joined the recent list of U.S. Open winners -- Webb Simpson (2012), Rory McIlroy (2011), Graeme McDowell (2010) and Lucas Glover (2009).
Mickelson, who turned 43 today, has a few majors in his pocket but also has a frustrating five second-place finishes in the U.S.Open, which he's never won. Lipping a birdie putt on No. 9, he put a hand on his hip and ducked his head, obviously disappointed.
Leaders struggle early at Merion Golf Club | 1:40 p.m.