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Donald in final group with Mickelson & Horschel

Alex Dimond at Merion June 15, 2013 « Live County Championship coverage | Chartbeat test »
Justin Rose and Luke Donald are firmly in contention at Merion after two rounds © Getty Images
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ESPN will have all the news, views and features from the US Open this week - along with an in-depth GolfCast from all four rounds

Luke Donald will play in the final group at Merion on Saturday, with Justin Rose just one three-ball back as the two Englishmen find themselves in the thick of the action as the US Open enters the third round.

Donald will set off at 2.40 pm local time (7.40pm UK time) alongside leaders Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel, 11 minutes after a penultimate three-ball that will include Rose, Steve Stricker and Australian John Senden.

The United States Golf Association has decided to send players out in three-balls due to the high number of golfers who made the cut, with a two-tee system (players will start on the first and 11th) employed once again in order to try to ensure the third round is completed before darkness.

Mickelson and Horschel, the only two players under-par for the tournament, will begin the third round with the lead at one-under, with Donald, Rose and Stricker just a shot adrift.

Donald plays in the lead group due to the fact he was the first player of the trio in the clubhouse at level-par.

While Donald, who has lived in Chicago for much of his life, is accepted almost as one of their own by the American crowds, avoiding a pairing with home favourite Mickelson might prove a blessing for Rose - especially playing in front of a Philadelphia crowd that has a reputation for being raucous.

"I always enjoy playing Phil, he brings the energy out there," Rose said, when asked on Friday about a potential pairing with the left-hander. "The Philly crowd has been great for me. But obviously Phil, the US Open fan favourite, there'll be a lot of goodwill for him."

On the possibility of some heckling as the tournament moves towards a climax, he added: "I think there's always one smart guy out there who had a few too many drinks. But it's part of being a professional. In golf we get very, very little of that.

"If you're a football player or any other team sport, other sports are patriotic, fans are with their team and against the other team. So that's the way I see it. It's part of the job."

At 32, Justin Rose is the same age as Adam Scott - who finally broke through to win the Masters in April. Thirty-two has been pointed out as an age many players mature into major champions, and Rose is hopeful the same will be true for him.

"I feel that I'm capable of a good week and big week," he added. "I feel like I'm capable of winning these tournaments now. I'm not going to get ahead of myself one little bit. I think that's part of learning your trade, not getting past Friday night. But deep down I believe I can."

Donald and Rose are not the only Englishmen in contention, with Ian Poulter in the fourth-last three-ball on Saturday. He will play with Henrik Stenson and Matthew Goggin.

In between them is the dangerous grouping of Hunter Mahan, Charl Schwartzel and Nicolas Colsaerts.

Poulter was one of the few players still needing to complete their second rounds on Saturday morning. With four of Merion's toughest holes still to navigate, Poulter dropped two shots - at the 16th and 18th - to finish two-over after a second successive round of 71.

Despite the late slips, Poulter believes he is firmly in contention heading into Saturday's action.

"I'm right there, I'm right in position and let's look forward to what rounds three and four have," Poulter said. "I'm three off the lead in the US Open. That's the difference of one hole. You can make birdie and someone can make double.

"I'm right in position and right there where I want to be. It's going to be a fun weekend."

The struggles of the late finishers saw Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, two players who looked somewhat out-of-sorts on Thursday before shooting impressive rounds of 70 on Friday, move to within a shot of the top ten, at three-over.

The world No. 1 and No. 2 will play their third rounds together, with Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano the final member of a marquee pairing that will tee off at 1.56 pm.

Elsewhere, Padraig Harrington had a chance to win this event last year at Olympic Club and, at four-over this time around, remains hopeful he can sneak into contention once again before the tournament is complete.

"There's plenty of potential in my game," the three-time major champion said. "We all love a bit of potential. There's possibilities - so I've got to trust it for the weekend and let it happen.

"I think I need two good rounds, to be honest with you. We'll wait and see."

The travails of many of the late starters saw the cut line eventually drift to eight-over - allowing the likes of Sergio Garcia (+6), Adam Scott (+7) and Lee Westwood (+7) all to play on into the weekend.

If Harrington feels he needs two good rounds to get into contention, however, then those further behind him might just settle for avoiding embarrassment over the remainder of this weekend.

Much was made of how easy might play this week, but the final cut-line does not support that pre-tournament theory. When the tournament was held here in 1971, the half-way cut was also eight-over.

In 1981 it was a shot better off, at seven-over.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk