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Surprising, Yet Deserving, U.S. Open Winner Could Emerge From Crowded Leaderboard

The three names tied atop the U.S. Open leaderboard after three rounds weren't popular picks heading into the weekend. But behind them, a few favorites lurk.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – A proper U.S. Open is a contest to see who can be the last to fall out of the boat in a storm, and what is unfolding at Torrey Pines is a proper U.S. Open. It hasn’t always been thrilling, but that’s why we have the Masters. This is, as Rory McIlroy said, “the only tournament in the world where you fist-pump a bogey.” He felt like doing that on 15, after hitting his drive into a ravine, where a rattlesnake and a penalty stroke awaited. He made bogey and stayed in the boat. He will wake up on Father’s Day, his first as a dad, with a chance to win his fifth major.

You can fairly separate the leaderboard into two groups: The guys who share the lead, and the favorites. Strange, isn’t it? Russell Henley, Mackenzie Hughes and Louis Oosthuizen all sit at five-under, but Henley and Hughes haven’t really been in this position and Oosthuizen has been here too much. Oosthuizen has contended a lot but won one major, the 2010 British, giving the unfair sense that he is more of an esteemed character actor than leading man.

Beneath those three on the leaderboard, though not in endorsement earnings, are Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau (both at three-under), John Rahm at two-under, and some big names who can at least talk themselves into thinking they might win. Anybody on that leaderboard has a chance. It might feel like we picked a winner out of a hat, though that’s not how this works.

Mackenzie Hughes and Russell Henley follow a tee shot on the 6th tee box during the second round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Mackenzie Hughes (left) and Russell Henley follow a tee shot on the 6th tee box during the second round.

Most eyes will be on McIlroy and DeChambeau, at least at the day’s start. DeChambeau is the defending champ, and he is made for this event: Long, difficult, repetitive golf is his specialty. McIlroy is made for every event, but he hasn’t won a big one since 2014, and even he said he can’t remember the last time he felt like he was really in the mix. McIlroy has been staying near the 18th green and eating the same chicken sandwich from room service every night, which is unlikely to be the reason he wins or loses but fits a U.S. Open theme. This is an event that rewards safe and boring.

Torrey Pines has been maligned by Twitter’s golf-course architects, and some of the criticism is justified. The land rivals Pebble Beach but the theater does not. Still, it is absolutely gorgeous, and Torrey Pines provides what a U.S. Open course should: A tough, relentless, fair test. Player complaints this week have been rare.

Say this, too, for the USGA: This is the third straight U.S. Open where the course setup made sense. The USGA is easily maligned, and sometimes it has deserved it. Golf fans remember the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, when the governing body “lost the course” on Saturday afternoon. How does one lose a golf course? Simple, really. You lose faith that the course will do the work of hosting a proper U.S. Open, and so you toughen it beyond all recognition, with sheet-glass greens and fairways that are thinner than Will Zalatoris. At Pebble Beach, Winged Foot and now Torrey Pines, the USGA has let the course do the work.

Phil Mickelson, who has occasionally criticized both the USGA and Torrey Pines, said “I just thought that they've done such a great job with the setup.” Another San Diego native, Xander Schauffelle, said, “I think it's fair. Guys are proving if you're golfing your ball, you can kind of take advantage and if not, it's punishment just like a normal U.S. Open should be.”

Russell Henley plays his shot from the 16th tee during the third round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Russell Henley plays his shot from the 16th tee.

One way to look at Sunday at Torrey Pines is that it began Saturday on No. 18. That’s a par-five that creates leaderboard movement. Oosthuizen eagled it. McIlroy and Rahm parred it. Richard Bland dunked the last remaining bits of his improbable dream in the water in front of the green. It was all a reminder that Sunday, Torrey could produce the kind of drama it doesn’t always seem likely to produce. McIlroy and DeChambeau on 18, tied for the lead, would be a good time. But it is quite possible we are celebrating U.S. Open champion Mackenzie Henley instead.

It’s Mackenzie Hughes. RUSSELL Henley.

Ah, right.

It has been a long time since we had a Who’s That Guy major champion. We used to get them fairly regularly. Steve Jones. Trevor Immelman. Danny Willett. Michael Campbell. Ben Curtis. Are you bored yet? Their relative anonymity did not diminish their achievements. Hughes and Henley have given themselves a chance. The challenge now is not to try to make too much of it.

As Justin Thomas (even-par) said, “Even when Torrey Pines is set up easy, it's still going to be difficult. I need to be smart. I can't come out and go at every flag and feel like I need to birdie every hole. There's a good chance that 3- or 4-under could still get it done tomorrow.” This is exactly what the U.S.G.A. wants to hear every year.

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