Frenetic Saturday Sets Stage for Riveting Sunday
By David Shefter, USGA
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – The leader board at Chambers Bay during Saturday’s third round of the 115th U.S. Open was a constantly shifting spate of contenders.
Everyone, it seemed, was in the mix for the third-round lead, including one competitor who played this challenging 7,637-yard layout in a less than ideal state.
At the end of another sun-splashed day in the Pacific Northwest, four players – reigning Masters champion Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Branden Grace and, remarkably, two-time U.S. Open runner-up Jason Day – shared the 54-hole lead at 4-under 206.
The co-leaders are three strokes clear of another quartet of golfers: 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, J.B. Holmes, Cameron Smith and Shane Lowry.
Patrick Reed, the 36-hole co-leader with Spieth, made three double bogeys and struggled to a 76, and is in a group of six players, five strokes behind the leaders.
Of the 14 golfers within five shots of the lead, only Oosthuizen and Spieth own a major title. But there is no shortage of star power with Spieth (2), Johnson (7) and Day (10) all in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking™.
“It's not like I'm a veteran at this by any means,” said Spieth, 21, who is only four years removed from winning his second U.S. Junior Amateur title at nearby Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash. “But by the time we tee off [at 2:48 p.m. PDT], if I can convince myself that I'm free rolling, I've got one of these, and the other guys are trying to chase their first. I know how hard it is to chase your first and close it out. If we can use that winning formula we had back in April, then all it comes down to is execution. And my execution hasn't been phenomenal this week.”
The sentimental favorite will obviously be Day, especially considering his physical state. The affable Australian collapsed on his final hole of the second round on Friday due to a recurring bout of vertigo, leaving his status for the third round in limbo. Day, 27, received medical attention overnight before deciding to gut it out Saturday. Fighting fatigue and occasional dizzy spells, Day managed to register five birdies on the inward nine to shoot 2-under 68. When he closed by holing a 6-foot birdie on 18, it produced thunderous applause that echoed throughout the course.
His effort revived memories of Ken Venturi fighting heat exhaustion over the final 36 holes to win the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, and Tiger Woods outlasting Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one healthy leg .
“Last year, I [withdrew] after I had vertigo and this one was worse,” said Day before he left to seek additional medical attention and rest ahead of Sunday’s final round. “I think the goal was just to go through today and see how it goes.”
Spieth, seeking to become the sixth player to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, looked like he might run away from the field early when he converted two long birdie putts covering a total of 79 feet at Nos. 2 and 3. But like everyone else playing the firm and fast course, Spieth was jolted by consecutive bogeys at holes 4 and 5, and another at 9.
His inconsistency off the tee – 7 of 14 fairways hit – put him in scrambling mode, and the putting prowess that he showcased in his record-tying 18-under par performance at Augusta National in April was not on display. He totaled 32 putts, including a three-putt par at No. 16 after driving the 372-yard hole. He also failed to convert short birdie putts at 17 and 18.
That cost him a spot in Sunday’s final pairing with Day. Instead, the long-hitting Johnson, who shot an even-par 70 while hitting every fairway, will get that honor. He, too, owned sole possession of the lead on Saturday after a birdie on No. 12 pushed him to 6 under. But a double bogey 6 at the 13th sent the 30-year-old from Myrtle Beach, S.C., back to the pack, and he closed with five consecutive pars.
This is Johnson’s second 54-hole U.S. Open lead. Five years ago, he led at Pebble Beach, only to shoot a final-round 82.
“I'm very pleased with the way today went,” said Johnson, a nine-time PGA Tour winner, including the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March. “I'm right where I want to be. I'm in position. If I play well tomorrow, we'll see what happens.”
Like Johnson , Grace, who has won two of his six PGA European Tour events in 2015, had his share of up-and-down moments on Saturday. During one five-hole stretch, he endured three three-putts. But Grace settled himself late in the round, playing the final five holes in 1 under par.
“It's just so easy to do on this golf course,” said Grace. “Your concentration slips when you're making bogeys out there.”
Grace, of South Africa, would love to win the Open on the 50th anniversary of countryman Gary Player’s victory at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis that completed the career Grand Slam.
“I'm stoked. I can't wait,” said Grace, who is vying to be the fourth South African to claim the U.S. Open (Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen). “Tomorrow is going to be a good one. This is what we play golf for. To go into a tournament like the U.S. Open, having a chance to win my first major is something special.”
But it was Grace’s compatriot, Oosthuizen, who made the most significant move on Saturday. After signing his card at 3:50 p.m., an hour after the final pairing teed off, Oosthuizen watched as his name steadily moved up the board. Since Thursday’s disappointing 77, Oosthuizen has climbed 130 spots, and gone from afterthought to contender. At 9 over par through 20 holes, he seemed bound for Sea-Tac Airport, not a prominent position in the final round.
Then he found his form, posting back-to-back 4-under 66s. He made five birdies against one bogey on Saturday, but the round could have been much lower if not for five missed birdie putts inside 10 feet. Nevertheless, Oosthuizen has put himself in position for a record-breaking comeback.
Jack Fleck, who beat Ben Hogan in a playoff in 1955, owns the mark for the largest 54-hole comeback (nine strokes). Oosthuizen was 12 behind 18-hole co-leaders Johnson and Henrik Stenson.
“It's going to be exciting from where I came back from,” said Oosthuizen. “If I can go out and shoot 1 or 2 under on the front nine and just put myself [in contention], anything can happen. There’s a lot of dangerous holes out there and if you’re not on your game ball-striking-wise, you’re going to struggle. I need to just try to go out and sort of try and play the same game plan as I did today.”
The stage is set for a rollicking finish on Sunday.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.