Round 3 of the 2013 U.S. Open is in the books from Merion Golf Club, and although the weather was kinder than it was during the week, the course was equally draconian.
Major shakeups occurred at the top, middle and bottom of the leaderboard, with some familiar faces plummeting out of contention (*cough* Tiger Woods), while relative nonpersons ascended to the top.
Here's a look at the post-Day 3 leaderboard, followed by a complete analysis of its contents:
The Leader: Phil Mickelson (-1)
Lefty's got a decent Oxbow impression, not necessarily leading wire-to-wire but front-running from the get-go nonetheless.
He's famously incompetent down the stretch at U.S. Opens, tying for second place an absurd five times despite never coming out on top. His success at Augusta earned him a short respite from vitriol, but with another bad performance on Sunday, those demons could resurface on a national stage.
The only person who can stop Mickelson on Sunday is Mickelson. He's been the best player through three rounds, and to be perfectly frank, the rest of the field is lucky to only trail him by one. One putt here and one break there are all that stands between Mickelson and a more considerable buffer.
But still, this is the U.S. Open we're talking about—a tournament where Mickelson has come up with multiple creative ways to lose. Only time can tell if he will buck the trend.
One Stroke Back: Hunter Mahan (E), Steve Stricker (E), Charl Schwartzel (E)
Uber-steady Stricker finished his round with pars, but beyond that, Mickelson's top competition all stumbled into the clubhouse. Mahan, Schwartzel and partner Luke Donald (+1) all finished bogey-bogey on the last two holes, Donald's 18th bogey of the double variety.
Still, even with Mickelson playing inspired golf, and even though they aren't below par, Mahan, Stricker and Schwartzel find themselves within one shot of the lead going into Sunday. They aren't strangers to the circumstances, either.
Stricker has finished top 10 at every major tournament, including two U.S. Open top fives in the late '90s. Mahan, who will play in the final group with Mickelson, has finished in the top 10 of three major tournaments. And Schwartzel, who won The Masters just two years ago, finished top 10 at Bethpage in 2009.
Throw in former world No. 1 Donald, who is breathing down Mickelson's neck, and it's clear that Sunday won't be short on drama.
The Dark Horse: Rickie Fowler (+3)
I wrote before the week that Fowler was a name to watch, and even after a brutal second-round 76, my gut didn't let me give up on him. Usually, Fowler betrays that confidence. But on Saturday, he made me look smart.
Fowler shot a 67 on Saturday, the best round out of anybody on the course. His only bogey came on the should-be-par-five fifth hole, which was sandwiched between four third-round birdies.
For some reason, he didn't get any airtime on NBC—though his playing partner, Sergio Garcia, managed to find airtime twice on the blogosphere—but Fowler crept up the leaderboard all afternoon. Now, with 18 holes left to play, he sits just three strokes over par and four shots behind the leader.
Fowler has never flirted with a major before. He's flirted with flirting with a major, but never before has he been this close this late. The golfers above him include notorious major-chokers (Donald) and Open-cursed players (Mickelson) instead of guys with success in this position.
If he shoots another 67 or 66, who among this field is a lock to break even-par? Fowler might have an actual chance.
The Former Champs: Ernie Els (+6), Rory McIlroy (+8), Tiger Woods (+9), Webb Simpson (+11), Geoff Ogilvy (+11)
Five former U.S. Open champs made the cut in 2013, and entering Round 3, all of them were in good to decent shape. Here's where they stood on the overnight leaderboard:
Not exactly front-running but not too shabby either, right? At least they were close.
But that was then and this is now. And now, after shooting a combined 26 shots under par on Saturday, all five former champs find themselves out of contention and then some.