ARDMORE, Pa. — Is it finally Hunter Mahan's time to shine, after so many years being considered on the verge of greatness? Or perhaps it will be Rickie Fowler, who recorded the best round of the day Saturday, suddenly moving within striking distance of an impressive pack.
By the time they crown a champion at the 113th U.S. Open at Merion on Sunday night — or perhaps Monday — should it come down to a tie necessitating an 18-hole playoff, he certainly will have earned it. Nothing has come easy at the place immortalized by Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, where Lee Trevino once outdueled Jack Nicklaus in a 1971 playoff.
That doesn't figure to change during today's final round, which is just fine with the Mahan, the 31-year-old former Oklahoma State golfer who briefly held a share of the lead Saturday before two late bogeys dropped him to one-under par 69 for the day, a shot behind Phil Mickelson. Tied with Mahan at even-par 210 are Steve Stricker and former Masters' champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa. Justin Rose, Jason Donald and Billy Horschel are at plus-1, with Fowler, another former Oklahoma State standout, four off the pace at three-over.
“Yeah, it feels good, one of many players near the top — Stricker, Rose, Donald and Horschel — who've never won a major,” Mahan said. “It's exciting.
“I feel like my game's been good for a while and I felt like this course suits me pretty well. It feels good to be in the hunt and be in contention.''
While many players have all but cursed the USGA for the way they've set up the rough and placed the pins in spots nearly impossible to reach, Mahan's more diplomatic. He knows Merion is tough enough on its own.
But he welcomes the challenge ahead.
“This course is very penalizing,” said Mahan, who'll go head-to-head with Mickelson in the final group of the day. “If you hit an errant shot, you're going to have a tough time making par.
“This course tests you from tee to green. Those last two holes (which he bogeyed) are the hardest holes on the course probably, so I did a lot of good things today.
“You really can't be upset at shooting under par.”
Especially if you're Fowler, who recorded the day's best round, three-under 67.
“Finally I kind of pieced everything together,'' said Fowler, who came into the day six-over after shooting 70-76 through the first two rounds. “I played well the first day scoring.
“Yesterday (Friday) I just had a bad stretch and today I just made a few putts to keep the round going.
“But I feel like if I get off to a good start tomorrow, get through the first six holes, stay patient, stay within myself, I can play well from there on in.''
Mahan and Fowler weren't the only former Oklahoma State golfers to fare well Saturday. Bo Van Pelt shot a 72 to move into a tie for 16th. And Edward Loar at one point was three-under for the day with his name on the leader board, but he faded down the stretch, finishing with a 73 to go seven-over.
But today most Sooner State eyes figure to be on Fowler and particularly Mahan, who'll be trying to erase his name with all those others from the dreaded “best player to never win a major” category.
“It's going to be a very, very exciting finish because I don't think any lead is safe,” Mahan said. “You just don't know what's going to happen.”
All he can hope is that perhaps this will be the day the golfing gods smile on him. And what better time than now?