- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — On a day when the rest of the field was waving white flags, South Africa raised its colors high over Shinnecock Hills.

Carding one of only three sub-par scores (69) during a brutally blustery third round, 2001 U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen surged to 5-under yesterday to claim a two-stroke edge over countryman Ernie Els and Masters champion Phil Mickelson at the 104th U.S. Open.

“I think we’ll have good TV ratings back in South Africa,” said Goosen, who will share today’s final-pairing spotlight with boyhood friend and two-time Open champion Els. “It will be great to play with Ernie. We can speak a bit of Afrikaans out there.”

If Goosen’s jokes aren’t particularly impressive, his golf certainly was. On a day when gusting winds and crusty greens made the 6,996-yard, par-70 layout play like a traditional U.S. Open track for the first time all week, producing an average score of 73.52, the 35-year-old Goosen never flinched. On a day when Jeff Maggert (1-under), Shigeki Maruyama (2-under), Fred Funk (2-under) and Mickelson all surged to the outright lead only to stumble down the stretch, Goosen was the only man who held his ground.

“I like courses and days that force you to grind it around,” said Goosen, who has won three of the four PGA Tour events in which he has shared or held the third-round lead. “The greens out there are pretty much dead — that’s how crusty they are. The wind was up. Yeah, today she really showed her teeth … The [par-5] fifth hole is about the only one out there you feel like you should make birdie. The rest of it is just fighting.”

Goosen is guaranteed to get a spirited fight from Els, who is still smarting from April’s gut-wrenching, 72nd-hole loss to Mickelson at the Masters. And despite Goosen’s solid record as a front-runner, an Els vs. Mickelson redux is both NBC’s dream and the people’s expectation.

Mickelson, who began the third round with a share of the lead with Maruyama at 6under, lost a bit of his recent major luster at Shinnecock Hills yesterday. After playing 52 holes of exquisite golf in 5-under, Lefty chucked a pair of strokes away on the layout’s final two holes, bunkering a wild approach to the 17th and three-putting the 18th from 30 feet.

“Even though I bogeyed the last two, it still doesn’t change the way I feel about the round,” said Mickelson, seemingly unruffled despite the late-round appearance of the old Phil, who was notorious for such lapses in concentration. “I’m really enjoying this. I know I’m grinding out there and it’s very difficult to make pars, and I’m looking at holes wondering how in the world I’m going to get anywhere near the pin. But it’s fun. It’s a fun challenge, because we only see this once or twice a year.”

Mickelson’s smiles after a third-round 73 contrasted perfectly with Els’ frowns after a gritty 70. The three-time major champion was not amused with the par-3, seventh hole, a 189-yard Redan-style hole with a burned-out, crusty green that yesterday crossed the line between severe and stupid. By the time contenders reached the hole in the early afternoon, the fried green resembled a pock-marked, tilted pool table. Players haven’t been able to hold the green all week. And yesterday, the scrambling pars that were possible all week gave way to a series of quasi-comical disasters.

Mickelson made a double bogey after a touched par putt from 8 feet turned into a bogey bid from 16. And Els watched a perfect bunker shot trickle past the cup and roll 30 feet off the green.

“I’m thrilled with my score, because that’s as hard as a U.S. Open gets,” said Els before unloading on the Redan. “The seventh hole is unplayable. The majority of the field is going to make 4 there, which is ridiculous.”

If the Big Easy sounds a bit edgy these days, it’s because he’s still riled up about being the victim of Mickelson’s feel-good breakthrough at the Masters. He hasn’t been the same mellow chap since Lefty’s back-nine 31 cost him a coveted green jacket. And while he won’t say it publicly, there’s nobody he’d rather face in today’s finale than Mickelson.

“He’s playing great golf, you’ve got to give him that,” said Els, who seems to part with every Mickelson compliment like a tooth. “He’s a good front-runner now, and you’ve got to give him that. But if that was his week, hopefully this is mine. I’m in with a good chance and ready for anything the day brings.”

If angst and determination translates into Sunday success, you better beware of the seething South African.

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