ARDMORE, Pa. (AP) -- For all those runner-up finishes, with so much heartache chasing the major he covets, Phil Mickelson has never had a better chance to win the U.S. Open.
It's the first time he has ever had the outright lead going into the final round. Of the nine players within five shots, only one has the experience of winning a major. And Tiger Woods went from contender to middle-of-the-pack by matching his worst U.S. Open score as a pro.
Despite a bogey on the final hole at Merion - the 18th was so tough it didn't yield a single birdie in the third round - Mickelson was the sole survivor to par Saturday with an even-par 70 that gave him a one-shot lead over Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
Mickelson celebrates his 43rd birthday Sunday - on Father's Day, no less. He left Merion on Monday and didn't return until three hours before his tee time on Thursday so he could attend the eighth-grade graduation of his oldest daughter.
"It's got the makings to be something special," Mickelson said. "But I still have to go out and perform, and play some of my best golf."
He has been good enough to play 54 holes in 1-under 209.
And he was close to perfection when he stood on the par-3 17th hole with a 4-iron in his hand, 253 yards away from the orange wicker basket attached to the pin, the signature look at Merion. He was one shot behind Luke Donald until a pure swing and an 8-foot birdie putt gave him the lead.
"I just stood and admired it," Mickelson said. "It was one of the best shots I've ever hit. I mean, it just was right down the center of the green and I was hoping it would kind of get the right bounces. It left me a beautiful uphill putt that I could be aggressive with and I made it. That was fun to do that because that's just not a hole you expect to get one back."
Four others players who had been under par late in the round couldn't hang on.
Donald twice made poor swings with a 2-iron, and it cost him three shots. Mahan, Schwartzel and Justin Rose all finished bogey-bogey.
There was trouble everywhere at Merion, and it didn't take much to find it. One swing cost Ian Poulter, who drove out-of-bounds on the 15th. One decision cost Nicolas Colsaerts, who tried to hit a shot under a tree on the 18th and made triple bogey. That left Mickelson alone at the top for only the second time in a major - he won the 2006 Masters with the lead.
The U.S. Open, however, has been nothing but trouble for Lefty.
"I don't think I feel any more pressure than anybody else who wants to win ... the U.S. Open," Mickelson said. "This is a tournament for years I've had opportunities, I've come close to, and it would mean a lot tomorrow if I could play some of my best golf - certainly if I can play the way I have been."
Saturday was more about weeding out the pretenders for this U.S. Open - and one of them turned out to be Woods. He started out just four shots out of the lead, and made a bending, 12-foot birdie putt on the opening hole. It never got any better for the world's No. 1 player. He made seven bogeys the rest of the way and didn't add another birdie. It was the fourth time he shot 76 in the U.S. Open, but never when he started out so close to the lead. Now, he's 10 shots behind.
"It certainly is frustrating," said Woods, who has been stuck on 14 majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. "I'm playing well enough to do it, and unfortunately just haven't gotten it done."
The final hour might have been a sneak preview for Sunday. At one point, there were five players under par, and suddenly there was only Mickelson.
Donald made double bogey on the 18th hole from the middle of the fairway, trying to swing too hard on a 2-iron to get up the hill and beyond the false front of the green. He wound up in ankle-deep rough, so gnarly that his third shot squirted across the green and into more thick grass.
"I should have done better," Donald said. "It was disappointing, but I'll take the positives out of today - a really solid 16 holes of golf, and I'm only two back."
Mahan let his spectacular back nine filled with four birdies go to waste with a bogey-bogey finish for a 69. He will be in the final group for the first time in a major with Mickelson, whom he considers a close friend.
"It's going to be a very, very exciting finish," Mahan said, "because I don't think any lead is safe."
Stricker made a 10-foot par putt on the 18th hole to complete a 70 and perhaps the steadiest round of the day. His only mistake in a round that lasted 5 1/2 hours under sunshine was a tee shot into the water on the par-3 ninth for a double bogey. At 46, Stricker can become the oldest U.S. Open champion.
"I've got to play smart golf ... not make any mistakes," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing. And it's a course where it's tough to come back."
Billy Horschel, tied with Mickelson at the start of the third round, kept his emotions in check and shot 72. He was two shots behind, along with Donald and Rose
The third round featured so much movement, and so many wild swings, that seven players had a share of the lead at some point. Even though USGA executive director Mike Davis said the course was set up to allow for good scores, this was more about hanging on for dear life.
There was no faking it Saturday afternoon.
Thirty players were separated by only five shots at the start of the third round. By the end of the day, there were just 10 players separated by five shots, including amateur Michael Kim. He was tied for third until losing four shots on the last three holes.
For all the talk about Merion being just a short course, the final two holes were beastly - 253 yards for a par 3 surrounded by deep bunkers and framed by the Scottish broom grass, and then a 530-yard closing hole up the hill, deep rough on both sides with bogeys or worse waiting for a single missed shot.
Stricker, remarkably, played bogey-free on the back nine. Horschel, striving for perfection at a championship that doesn't allow for it, dropped only one shot.
"Seventeen and 18, you've got to buckle up and hit good shots," Horschel said. "So I think tomorrow, with the pressure being on, those holes will stick out even more."
Mickelson chose not to carry a driver, and he had to be flawless again on the long closing hole. He swung the 3-wood with confidence throughout the back nine and drilled another. With some 250 yards left, another fairway metal took him just over the green. His chip came out some 10 feet short and he missed the par putt to end a streak of 12 holes without a bogey.
But he still had the lead. It was the first time only one player remained under par through 54 holes at the U.S. Open since 2007 at Oakmont, when there was none. Mickelson was tied for the 54-hole lead at Winged Foot in 2006, where he lost a one-shot lead on the final hole by making double bogey.
Of his five runner-up finishes, that one stung the most.
But he's back for another try to win his national championship. The challenge has never been more severe - not from any player, but from Merion.
Mickelson has one piece of history working against him. In the four previous U.S. Opens at this classic course, no one with the lead going into the final round has ever gone on to win.
"I love being in the thick of it," Mickelson said. "I've had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it's been heart-breaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide. But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open."
ARDMORE, Pa. (AP) -- Even for Phil Mickelson, his path to the top of the leaderboard Thursday in the U.S. Open was unconventional.
He traveled about 2,400 miles in the air and 7,000 yards on the ground. He took a short nap on his private jet from San Diego and another one during a rain delay when he found a secluded corner of the library room in the Merion clubhouse. He carried five wedges but no driver.
Some 17 hours later, Mickelson had a 3-under 67 to match his best opening round in the U.S. Open.
Mickelson returned from his daughter's eighth-grade graduation about 3 1/2 hours before his tee time. He three-putted his first hole for a bogey and didn't give back a shot the rest of the day at Merion, which proved plenty tough by yielding only one other round under par to the 78 players who completed the first round.
Because of two rain delays, the first round won't be completed until Friday morning. Mickelson won't have to tee it up again for another 24 hours.
Enough time to fly back to San Diego?
"I don't want to push it, no," Mickelson said with a tired smile.
Tiger Woods faced a tougher road. He appeared to hurt his left hand after trying to gouge out of the deep rough on the opening hole. He grimaced and shook his left wrist again after hitting a 5-wood out of the rough on the fifth hole. He already had three bogeys though five holes before starting to make up ground with a 50-foot birdie putt on the par-4 sixth hole.
Woods, however, failed to take advantage on the short stretch of holes in the middle of the round, and he was shaking his hand again after shots out of the rough on the 10th and twice on the 11th. He was 2-over for his round and had a 4-foot par putt on the 11th when play was stopped for the day.
"I've got a lot of holes to play tomorrow," Woods said. "And, hopefully, I can play a little better than I did today."
Luke Donald was 4-under through 13 holes, making one last birdie before leaving the course. The first round was to resume at 7:15 a.m. Friday, and the forecast called for drier weather for the rest of the week.
Masters champion Adam Scott, playing with Woods and Rory McIlroy, was 3-under through 11 holes, while defending U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson was 2-under through eight holes. McIlroy was even par.
Lee Westwood got the full Merion experience. He was 3-under when his approach on the 12th hit the wicker basket - the signature at Merion, replacing traditional flags - and bounced off the green, leading to a double bogey.
For Mickelson, this could be the start of yet another chance to win the major championship he wants so dearly. Or maybe he's setting himself up for more heartache. He already has been a runner-up a record five times in the U.S. Open.
"If I'm able - and I believe I will - if I'm able to ultimately win a U.S. Open, I would say that it's great," Mickelson said. "Because I will have had ... a win and five seconds. But if I never get that win, then it would be a bit heart-breaking."
Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium, the only other player from the morning wave to break par, picked up birdies on the short seventh and eighth holes for a 69.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, Tim Clark, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Jerry Kelly were the only others who at least matched par at 70. Clark and Kelly were at 2 under deep in their rounds until running into trouble, which isn't hard to do in the U.S. Open, especially at Merion. Clark took a double bogey-bogey stretch in the middle of his back nine. Kelly was one shot behind Mickelson until a double bogey on the 18th hole.
"It's a lot tougher than they say it is," Schwartzel said.
It doesn't take much - just two holes for Sergio Garcia, who found Merion far more daunting than the few wisecracks from the gallery. Garcia received mostly warm applause, with some barely audible boos from the grandstand when he started his round on No. 11. It was his first time competing in America since his public spat with Woods took a bad turn when he jokingly said he would have Woods over for dinner during the U.S. Open and serve fried chicken.
"There were a couple here and there," Garcia said about some jeers. "But I felt the people were very nice for the whole day. I think that almost all of them were behind me and that was nice to see."
They saw him hit his tee shot out of bounds on No. 14 right before the first rain delay, leading to double bogey. Then, he hooked his next shot out of bounds and hit a bunker shot over the green on his way to a quadruple-bogey 8 at No. 15. Despite being 6-over on those two holes, he rallied for a 73.
Mickelson, meanwhile, looked as though he could play this golf course in his sleep. And he nearly did.
With two holes remaining, he hit 5-iron into 30 feet on the 237-yard ninth hole and told caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay that he was starting to hit the ball. Despite the constant smiling, Mickelson is intense inside the ropes, and Mackay told him to stop thinking about his swing, his next shot, the course or anything else related to golf during the walk to the green. Lefty rolled in the right-to-left breaking putt for another birdie.
"Being able to tune in and tune out was kind of nice the last hole or two," Mickelson said. "It's been a long day."
The only other time Mickelson opened with a 67 in the U.S. Open was in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2, and his oldest daughter was part of that story, too. Mickelson carried a pager with him that week because his wife was due with their first child. He finished one shot behind when the late Payne Stewart holed a 15-foot par putt on the last hole, and Amanda was born the next day.
Mickelson was always going to be home before the U.S. Open because Amanda, who turns 14 next week, was chosen to be a featured speaker at her graduation. He left Merion on Monday, a day earlier than planned, when more heavy rain washed out most of the practice round. Besides, Mickelson felt like he knew the course well enough from his scouting trip last week.
"She told me that it's fine. `Stay, it's the U.S. Open. I know how much you care about it.' And I told her that I want to be there," Mickelson said. "I don't want to miss her speech. I don't want to miss her graduation. She spent nine years at that school. And she's worked very hard and I'm very proud of her."
The ceremony was at 6 p.m. PDT. Mickelson was on the plane two hours later, landing in Philadelphia about 3:30 a.m. He had a few hours of sleep on the plane, and then played five holes before the rain delay. He found a few cushions for a makeshift bed in the clubhouse library.
Despite his four birdies, including a 25-foot putt that fell on its last turn at No. 1, Mickelson saved his round with some crucial pars.
He missed the par-3 third green to the right, in fluffy grass down the hill, and hit a flop shot that landed on the collar and stopped 5 feet from the cup. He caught a break when his tee shot went into the hazard left of the fifth fairway, about a foot away from dropping into the small stream. He got that out, hit wedge to 8 feet and made a difficult right-to-left putt. And on the next hole, he swung hard to generate height and spin out of the bunker, the only way to get the ball close. He made an 8-footer for par.
Mickelson hit 9-iron to 2 feet on the seventh hole for birdie, and holed that 30-foot putt on the ninth.
And then, it was time to rest.
"He had a crazy 24 hours," said Keegan Bradley, playing alongside Mickelson and Steve Stricker. "Sometimes that helps, not thinking about it."
SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- LeBron James scored 33 points while playing with the aggression and ferocity that everyone expects of the four-time MVP, leading the Miami Heat to a 109-93 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night that evened the NBA Finals at two games apiece.
James also had 11 rebounds and four assists and finally got some much-needed help from his struggling All-Star teammates. Dwyane Wade scored 32 points, Chris Bosh had 20 points and 13 rebounds and the defending champions made sure the series will head back to South Beach.
Tony Parker had 15 points and nine assists while playing through a sore right hamstring for the Spurs, who were trying to move one step closer to their fifth championship.
Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is Sunday night in San Antonio.
Ray Allen scored 14 points for the Heat. Miami had 50 points in the paint after managing 32 in a 36-point loss in Game 3.
Tim Duncan scored 20 points, and Kawhi Leonard added 12 points and seven rebounds for the Spurs, who turned the ball over 19 times. After setting a finals record with 16 3-pointers in Game 3, San Antonio was 8 for 16.
James was an abysmal 7 for 21 for 15 points in Game 3, and he promised to be better in Game 4. He delivered on that the only way he knows how, hitting 15 of 25 shots and putting the team on his shoulders to set the tone early.
Every time James snatched a Spurs miss off the glass he thundered up the court, attacking the back-pedaling defense for easy layups that simply haven't been there for him this series.
He made six of his first seven shots, controlling the tempo and responding when the Spurs threatened to run away with the game in the first six minutes.
Parker strained his right hamstring during Game 3, leaving many in San Antonio to fear that the big step forward they made with their win in Game 3 came at a hefty price. But Parker deemed himself "ready to go" at the team's morning shootaround and looked fine, save for a quick trip to the locker room in the fourth quarter.
All the old Parker tricks were there in the first quarter - a pull-up jumper to open the game, a driving layup and then another off the pick-and-roll. Leonard then buried a 3-pointer to give the Spurs a 15-5 lead early in the game.
Then James made the move the Heat have been waiting for all series.
He took the ball coast-to-coast on two straight possessions during run that tied it at 19. James then hit two mid-range jumpers - an area that has been a struggle for him - to cap the 14-2 surge and give Miami a 25-21 lead.
In an unusual move, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decided to shuffle the starting lineup in the middle of a series. He inserted the sharp-shooting Mike Miller for big man Udonis Haslem in an effort to create more room for James and Wade to penetrate to the rim.
Miller was 9 for 10 on 3-pointers in his first three games of the finals, but was scoreless in the game.
Wade was averaging 2.7 points in the second half in the finals, but had eight in the third quarter of Game 4.
Wade then finished off the Spurs with a flurry of eight straight Heat points followed by an assist to Bosh for a 94-83 lead with seven minutes to play. The Heat's Big Three scored all but three points for Miami in the fourth.
If there was a common theme in the first three games, it was the curiously meek performance from James. He entered this series after perhaps the best season of his career, a versatile and efficient freight train that had taken the league and made it his own.
He was out to show just how far he'd come from 2007, when the Spurs dismantled his Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals and exposed the rising star as a player who could be neutralized if he was forced to settle for jump shots. James promised that he would not be so easily contained this time around, and .565 shooting percentage during the regular season, including .406 on 3-pointers, seemed to support that theory.
But the Spurs had done to him in these finals exactly what they did to him six years ago. They've clogged the paint with two big men - Duncan and Tiago Splitter - and surrounded him on the perimeter with a pack of hungry young wings led by Leonard and Green.
The results had been unlike anything the league has grown used to seeing from its biggest star. James entered Game 4 averaged 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting. He was just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the first three games, and even more startling, only had six free throw attempts.
"I'm putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team," James said. "That's the way it is."
It would be hard to find much higher stakes than Game 4 for the Heat. No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship.