Phil Mickelson repelled a host of challengers in the third round of the US Open on Saturday to hang onto his lead after a dramatic day of jousting among the world’s top players. The American started the day with a one stroke lead, saw six different players overtake him, and then rebounded at the death to move back ahead by the smallest of margins on one-under 209.

It was a compelling day which gave the big crowds at Merion Golf Club an ever-changing tableau of golfing fortunes and it set the stage for a last-round dogfight on Sunday with 14 players grouped within six strokes of the leader.

And once again, magical Merion came out on top, with only Mickelson remaining under par as the gnarled old course once again bared its fangs.

Three players — Charl Schwartzel (69), Steve Stricker (70) and Hunter Mahan (69) — were one back on level par 210, with Luke Donald (71), Justin Rose (71) and Billy Horschel (72) a further stroke back.

The 42-year-old crowd favourite Mickelson, seeking a US Open win after a record five runner-up finishes, and in-form countryman Horschel started the day in the lead at one under, but were soon reeled in by the chasing pack.

Australia’s John Senden, with one win in 10 years on the US tour, briefly took over before being joined by Rose and Donald.

Then Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, made his move as the fancied English pair briefly faltered.

Former World No. 1 Donald rejoined the South African atop the leader board at one under with his second birdie of the day at the eighth and, for the first time in the round, there was clear water between the leaders and the rest of the field.

Schwartzel and Donald stayed ahead for several holes before American Mahan emerged from the pack with four birdies in seven holes down the back nine to become the seventh player to edge his nose in front.

But after Schwartzel, Mahan and Donald all bogeyed the tough par-three 17th, Mickelson got the biggest cheer of the day when he birdied the same hole.

That put him back ahead for the first time since he bogeyed the third hole and put him in sight of the prize he says he “cherishes the most”.

Meanwhile, there was no place on the leader board for the two biggest names in the game — Tiger Woods (76) and Rory McIlroy (75). Four strokes back of the lead at the start of the round and playing together for the third day in a row, the American and the Ulsterman got off to the best of possible starts by sinking 12-footers for birdies at the first.

But McIlroy drove out of bounds at the second for a bogey and both dropped shots at the par-three third after under-cooking their tee-shots.

They both then bogeyed the fifth as the much-anticipated challenges from the two top-ranked players in the world badly fizzled out.

Top scores: Third round:

209 — Phil Mickelson (USA); 210 — Hunter Mahan (USA), Charl Schwartzel (RSA), Steve Stricker (USA); 211 — Justin Rose (Eng), Luke Donald (Eng), Billy Horschel (USA); 212 — Jason Day (Aus); 213 — Rickie Fowler (USA); 214 — Michael Kim (USA); 215 — Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (Esp), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Ian Poulter (Eng), Nicolas Colsaerts (Bel), John Senden (Aus). — AFP

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