Moving day at the U.S. Open lived up to its name on Saturday as golfers scrambling for position at the 120th edition of our national championship skyrocketed and nosedived up and down the leaderboard.
We're through 54 holes at iconic Winged Foot and 21-year old Matthew Wolff leads the U.S. Open following a blistering round of golf. Wolff’s 5-under par 65 featured a front-nine 30 and a spectacular birdie on the finishing hole on an afternoon where the second-year pro struggled to find fairways. Wolff was all over the map, hitting just two of 14 fairways, but still managed to score in bunches, tying the lowest round ever at a U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
For a second straight day, the leader went backwards. 36-hole leader Patrick Reed stumbled to a 7-over par 77 while Bryson DeChambeau rallied late and grinded his way to an even par 70.
Wolff heads into Sunday’s final round sitting on a 2-shot lead over Bryson DeChambeau and will now experience a new first in his young career. Sleeping on the lead before the final round of a major championship
Here’s a few key takeaways from round three at the U.S. Open.
Nine and Fine
Sometimes all it takes is a blistering nine-hole stretch at a U.S. Open to catapult a player toward the top of the leaderboard. In 2018, it was a second-nine 31 during round two that launched eventual champ Brooks Koepka up the standings at Shinnecock Hills. For 2019 champ Gary Woodland, it was a second-nine 31 on day two that spring boarded his eventual title at Pebble Beach.
On Saturday, young Matthew Wolff stepped to the first tee at Winged Foot in attack mode. The 21 year old, playing in his just his second major championship, began his day with a birdie. Another came at the fourth hole and was followed by back-to-back birdies at six and seven. All of a sudden Wolff made the turn in 30. A five-under par masterpiece of nine holes leapfrogged the field and placed him atop the U.S. Open leaderboard.
“I think my putting was by far the best it's felt in the last two or three months.” said Wolff, who carded six birdies and a bogey on Saturday. “I feel like I'm really hitting the ball well. My irons were really good, and even though I only hit two fairways, my driver was just barely off, but that's the U.S. Open.”
In his first U.S. Open appearance, Wolff now heads to Sunday looking to become the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones won in 1923.
Fan-less majors have eased pressure on young players
Standing on the 16th tee at Winged Foot, Matthew Wolff had a realization. The 21 year old held a 3-shot lead at the U.S. Open with 21 holes remaining. Any other year the buzz around the golf course, swelling crowds and bright leaderboards would have let pressure creep into Wolff’s head. But this of course is 2020 and a fan-less U.S. Open is unlike any other. The calm and quiet around Winged Foot has led to guys like Wolff asking themselves, "Pressure … What pressure?"
It’s the same anomaly we saw at the PGA Championship in August. As 23 year old Collin Morikawa streaked ahead to win the first major title of his career, there was no noise to deal with. No movement of a gallery while trying to execute a show down the stretch. No build-up of extreme pressure.
Part of the success for guys like Morikawa and Wolff is that they stepped onto the PGA Tour ready to win. Both young studs became winners within the first six weeks of their pro careers. But the fan-less majors devoid of traditional pressure certainly has been a factor.
“It's one variable that you just don't have to deal with,” says four-time major champion Rory McIlroy who hinted that players like himself, who are seasoned at playing in a major championship environment, have lost a bit of an edge.
“Is that a loss of an advantage to you, who's accustomed to being in that environment? Yeah, I think it could be, a little bit. It just makes it a little different and maybe a touch easier if you're in those final few groups.”
One pressure that will be unavoidable for Wolff, is the stress of hitting the pillow Saturday night with the lead. It’s something he experienced earlier this season at the Rocket Mortgage Classic where he struggled on Sunday and finished second. It’s an experience he expects to lean on Saturday night.
“The biggest thing is not really looking ahead.” said Wolff.
“I was kind of antsy at the beginning of the round in Detroit, and I think I'm going to go out there and just do my thing. I definitely can't count anyone out of the tournament, but I'll be able to keep calm tonight, watch some basketball, hang out with my caddie. I know if I keep calm and not let my emotions get the best of me, I should have a really good chance.”
Up-and-down trend continues for Rory
It’s been over six years since Rory McIlroy hoisted a major championship trophy. A number that is simply mind boggling for arguably the most talented player in the game.
McIlroy has been stuck in neutral since the PGA Tour restarted its season, but after a day one 67, the Northern Irishman seemed primed to compete this week at Winged Foot. A second-round 76 appeared to derail any chance of Rory snapping his major-less streak, but the roller coaster ride through Mamaroneck, N.Y. continued on Saturday with a third-round 68. Just enough to put the four-time major champion in the hunt.
Having one U.S. Open title under his belt, McIlroy knows how important the ability to bounce back is in a championship like this.
“You're going to have stretches in U.S. Opens where you're going to make bogeys and you're going to make mistakes, but if you can back it up with stretches of golf like I showed there, that's what you have to do. It's not going to be all plain sailing in this tournament.” said McIlroy, who sits six back of Wolff..
It’s a number that Rory knows is going to take a quick start on Sunday to cut into.
“You know, it doesn't take much around here if someone gets off to a decent start, maybe one or two under through five and then the leader goes the other way, one or two over through five, and all of a sudden you're right in the thick of things.” McIlroy said.
So, you’re saying there’s a chance …?
Two things to keep an eye on Sunday
-Sunday could be a wild one at Winged Foot, with the wind in the New York suburbs expected to kick up with gusts close to 20mph. Windy conditions will likely send much of the field tumbling down the leaderboard. Watch for a golfer or two to catch lightning in a bottle and come out of nowhere to contend on Sunday.
-It should be interesting to see the type of setup the USGA presents players with on Sunday. Thursday produced 21 players under par. On Friday, just three players were in the red. Saturday—seven players produced sub-par rounds. Does the USGA amp up Winged Foot on Sunday? My guess is yes.