FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - It would, of course, go down as one of the ultimate stories ever: Phil Mickelson finally wins the U.S. Open, in front of his adoring New York fans, as his wife Amy watches from their home in San Diego while she prepares to begin her treatments to beat breast cancer.

And it could still happen.

The second-best golfer on the planet, who has finished second in the last three Big Apple Opens including the previous one at Bethpage Black in 2002, carded a third-round 69 yesterday, a round that began on Saturday, to get to 2-under par 208 for the championship.

That left him in a three-way tie for fifth after 54 holes with Mike Weir and Hunter Mahan, six out of the lead.

By the time the fourth round was suspended due to darkness, he had played two more holes and added as many pars. But now he is only down five.

"I feel like I'm only 18 good holes away," said Lefty, who won the 2005 PGA that carried over into Monday at Baltusrol in North Jersey. "I feel like if I get a hot round going, I can make up the difference. You just never know.

"I don't care when we play the [final] 18 holes, as long as we play them. Having won [three] majors, I feel confident and I'm able to be patient much easier in a challenging event like this."

There's no doubt whom the galleries will be pulling for. With every bellow.

"It's awesome," he said. "The people here [have been] just incredible. They're a lot of fun. It made the whole round so enjoyable, the whole week. I've heard some great, great lines. You know, the best ones I can't even repeat. But they keep us laughing . . .

"I've been there when I'm trying to protect the lead, and I've been there where I'm trying to mount a charge. Obviously having a lead is the best spot to be in. But there are a lot of birdies on the golf course, and a lot of bogeys and doubles as well.

"If myself or some other guys [in my situation] can get a hot hand, the emotion of the event, the momentum, can change."

Maybe even in one of those Gotham minutes.

Tiger's still around

Tiger Woods authored quite a story himself last June by winning on one leg at Torrey Pines. And he won the second of his three Open titles here 7 years ago. But this is the one major he has never won back-to-back; only one man has since 1951 (Curtis Strange, 1988-89).

If only he hadn't played the final four holes of his opening round in 4-over. But he did. After a third-round 68, he played seven holes of his final round in 1-under, starting with a bogey and closing with a birdie. So he is at even par. That's a lot of ground to make up, especially for someone who never has rallied to win a major in the last 18 holes before. But probably not impossible.

"It's one of those where you have to play a great round of golf and get some help," he said, correctly, after his third round. "Obviously it's not totally in my control. That [first-round] finish put me so far back, I had to try and make up shots the entire time. I've hit the ball well enough to do it, but just haven't made the putts. I've been burning the edges, just haven't got it right yet . . .

"We can't even remember what day we're playing [right now]. It just all blurs together."

Still awaiting the big news

In April, West Chester's Sean O'Hair had his best finish in a major, a tie for 10th at the Masters. And he won his third PGA Tour event in his next start.

He was back in the mix at his third U.S. Open. A third-round 71 put him in a tie for eighth, at 1-under. But he played four holes in the fourth round in 2-over, with a birdie, bogey and closing double at the par-5 fourth.

His wife Jackie is back home with her family, resting in bed, as she awaits the birth of the couple's third child.

"She's fine," O'Hair said between rounds. "I'm a little bit surprised [it hasn't happened yet], actually. I'd like to be there. I hope she can hang in there one more round."

Her due date is Wednesday, but their second child was born a week early.

"We'll get to that when we get to that," he smiled. "We'll see."

It's been a week of distractions. Yesterday he arrived at the course early only to find out that play had been pushed back until noon. So he went back to the hotel and got some sleep.

"There's nothing you can do about it," he said. "I might as well not let it bother me. It is what it is. It's like [the movie] 'Groundhog Day.' It's the same day over and over and over again." *