You can take the well-worn Thursday warning at a major championship out of the hamper, move it up two days on the calendar, rinse and repeat: You can’t win the U.S. Open on Saturday but you can lose it.
A friendly-looking setup at Torrey Pines Golf Course practically guaranteed that almost no one among Friday night’s leaders would lose the U.S. Open on Saturday afternoon. Richard Bland, who was tied at the top with Russell Henley after 36 holes, and Bubba Watson were the only players tossed off the leaderboard.
But Henley remains on top when the final round begins Sunday, along with former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen and Mackenzie Hughes, all at 5-under 208. (Scores)
No one was at all surprised that Bland, the 48-year-old Englishman and biggest story of the championship, started to disintegrate under the Open magnifying glass. And Watson, a two-time Masters winner, who has a poor history at this major championship, also went missing. Both players shot 77 on Saturday.
Hughes, a 30-year-old Canadian who lives in Charlotte, N.C., made eagle at the par-5 13th that tied him for the lead at the time and was a big part of his Saturday 68. Hughes has missed his last five cuts on the PGA Tour. Oosthuizen made birdie on the par-3 16th and eagle on the 18th to tie him for the lead with 70. And Henley holed enough putts to make up for a sloppy ballstriking day to sign for 71 and join them.
When the leading trio tees off Sunday morning, they will be looking at a group of players on the leaderboard just behind them who would cause anyone’s pulse rate to climb in the final round of a major.
Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau are two shots back at 3-under for the championship, while Jon Rahm (72), Matthew Wolff (73) and Scottie Scheffler (70) are another shot behind at 2 under. Five more players are at 1 under, including Dustin Johnson (68), Collin Morikawa (70) and Xander Schauffele (72).
The 121st U.S. Open has been miles from typical: After 54 holes, 13 players are under par, about 10 or 11 more than usual at this point. The tees on the three par-5 holes at Torrey Pines were all moved up at least 35 yards for the third round, and as a result, they gave up the most birdies and all three played under par, making them by far the easiest holes on Saturday.
Cool temperatures, no more than a sliver of sunshine and the daily, moisture-filled marine layer have resulted in the poa annua greens at Torrey Pines not being nearly as firm nor as fast as you’d expect for an Open. Shots from the fairway usually find a decent result. Even approaches from the trampled-down rough some of the longer hitters are finding off the tee, seemingly on purpose, doesn’t pose much of penalty.
As a result, DeChambeau – who is thoroughly capable of driving it long and wrong – recorded a bogey-free round of 68 that puts him squarely in the middle of the championship.
Chips and pitches from the rough surrounding Torrey’s sloping greens haven’t struck much fear in the hearts of the wayward and it’s been rare for any putt, even the long downhillers, to get away from even the most aggressive putter. In fact, if you had given DeChambeau two more total feet of putts that he left short in the jaws all afternoon, he might be leading the Open by three.
Despite the relative kindness and gentleness of the South Course at Torrey Pines, the low score of the championship is 4-under 67. Those who need to conjure something lower to catch the leaders on Sunday will need to find something no one has yet to locate.
That will include the seven players who stand at even-par for the championship that include Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas, who each shot even-par 71 in the third round.
“Go play good,” Brooks Koepka said succinctly and maybe even a little sarcastically. His even-par 71 on Saturday made up no ground on the leaders and he stands five shots behind. “That's what I need to do if I want a chance to win. So, go do that.”
DeChambeau acknowledged the Saturday setup and admitted that Sunday could go in a couple of directions.
“If they make it hard and tuck pins, it's going to be a very difficult championship,” said DeChambeau, who won last September’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club. “It's going to be hold on to your horses. You just have to recognize the golf course in the moment, in the conditions at hand. It's about adapting on the spot.”
McIlroy shot 4-under 67 on Saturday to give him his first real chance in years to contend for a major championship. The 32-year-old McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, last won a major at the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I thought something like two 68s over the weekend from where I was after Friday was going to have a good chance,” McIlroy said. “I've done the first part of that job. Now it's up to me tomorrow to go out and try to play a similar round of golf.”
Johnson, who won last November’s Masters, rode a hot putter to his Saturday 68 and thinks he knows what it will take to win Sunday. “At the beginning of the week, I said I'd like to sit in the clubhouse with 5-under,” Johnson said. “It's still looking like that's probably going to be a pretty good number.”
He’s far from the only one who hopes so.
MORE ROUND 3 U.S. OPEN COVERAGE
- 2021 U.S. Open Daily Question: Will Previous Major Championship Success Matter on Sunday at Torrey Pines?
- Stage is Set for Sunday Showdown at Torrey Pines
- Big, Bad Bryson Looks Ready to Defend His U.S. Open Title
- Surprising Contenders are in Position for U.S. Open Shocker
- 2021 U.S. Open: Total Purse, Prize Money, Winnings for Each Golfer
- Matthew Wolff Says He's Already Won This Week (And He's Right)