SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – In its attempt to be the toughest golf championship on the planet, the U.S. Open sometimes goes off the rails and becomes a demolition derby instead.
It happened again Saturday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. The winds increased — unexpectedly, the U.S. Golf Association said, even if its course setup sheet for the third round indicated otherwise — and the scores of the pairings over the final two hours rose like a helium-filled balloon.
The 4-stroke lead enjoyed by Dustin Johnson after two rounds disappeared on his front nine and the rest of the day turned into a survival contest. Johnson clung to a share of the lead at 3-over 213 after a 77, but he had the company of defending champion Brooks Koepka and two other players at the top.
In fact, the “others” — Daniel Berger and Tony Finau — finished up rounds of 66 with six birdies each before Johnson even teed off at 3:10 p.m. So on a day that started with the two 20-somethings tied for 45th, some 11 strokes off the lead, they will be paired in the final group on Sunday.
Two major champions, Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, and former British Open winner Henrik Stenson, are lurking just off the pace. Rose hit just six greens but his 27 putts saved him in a 73 that left him at 214 while Stenson, who held a share of the lead at the turn, carded a 74 for 215.
It was brutal for the last 12 pairings. The lowest scores shot were 72 by Koepka and Jim Furyk, the 2003 Open champion who is tied for seventh just three shots off the lead. Four players shot 80 or higher with Rickie Fowler posting the worst round of the day, an 84. The scoring average kept rising, ending the day at 75.328, nearly two strokes higher than Friday.
The greens were so fast and crusty that well-struck shots into greens rolled over the surfaces, or rolled off the edges into bunkers. Johnson, however, was careful not to be too critical.
“I felt the speeds were a little inconsistent,” he said. “I don’t mind it being fast. I don’t mind it being tough. But some greens were extremely fast, and some I felt were slow. So I felt like it was tough to get a good beat on the speed today.”
But Koepka, who saw a bunker shot get away on 15, said: “I don’t have anything nice to say about that green and the pin location, so I’m just not going to say it.”
Mike Davis, chief executive officer of the USGA, conceded that the greens got away from the course setup people.
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“We would admit there were some aspects of this setup that simply went too far in the sense that well-executed shots were not rewarded, but were penalized,” he said. “We missed it with the wind. It blew harder than we thought it was going to blow.”
However, the course setup information sheet issued at the start of the day said the breeze would average 10 to 15 miles an hour “with a high wind gust around 20 mph possible near 5 p.m.”
Johnson went 6-over par on his first eight holes and lost his lead before the turn. He steadied himself and played the next nine in even par but lost his chance at being in first place by himself with a 3-putt bogey at 18.
“I had seven or eight putts that easily could have gone in the hole but didn’t,” said Johnson, who finished with 38 putts. “That’s the difference between shooting 7-over and even par.”
Koepka had the day’s highlight, a 61-foot putt to save par at No. 14.
As for going into Sunday with a share of the lead, he said, “There’s nobody more confident. I feel like you’re going to have to take it from me, to be honest with you.”