SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – What we have here is a case of mistaken identity. Remind me again which major championship this is?
A Masters Tournament broke out with fast-fast-faster greens here Saturday. They were Augusta National fast. They also had the smoothness of Augusta National’s … first cut. These guys are good putters, but nobody likes playing Plinko.
A British Open broke out with the thick fescue, a Shinnecock Hills trademark. Any time a ball dived into the thick stuff, you had to wonder, Are they going to find that one? Leader Dustin Johnson fanned it into the right rough at the 15th hole, then hacked it out to the fairway back toward the tee. Ah, sweet. That’s exactly what the folks watching on TV want to see: real-man golf.
© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Dustin Johnson squanders a 4-shot lead in the U.S. Open, injecting more drama into today’s final round.
A PGA Championship broke out because traffic has been so bad all week, a PGA staple. While Long Island’s population has doubled, its road network hasn’t.
No, wait, this is a U.S. Open after all. I know that because Saturday afternoon, the USGA finally came through with another bad ruling when it slapped Phil Mickelson with a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball. He did it on purpose to keep it from rolling off the 13th green and behind a bunker, where he said he probably wouldn’t have a shot.
When I joked on Twitter that Mickelson was under investigation by Robert Mueller’s team for the move, someone tweeted back at me that the USGA gave Phil the Hillary treatment. He should have been disqualified – Mickelson, not Mueller – for committing a “serious breach” of the rules for an action that gave him a significant advantage. The USGA effectively looked the other way, using a narrow interpretation of Rule 14-5 (“Playing Moving Ball”) that hitting a moving ball is only a two-stroke penalty. Had Mickelson (who took 10 on the hole) stopped the ball instead of hitting it, he would have been DQ’d. In what world is hitting a moving ball not worse than stopping one, because both are effectively cheating?
Well, it’s not a U.S. Open unless the governing body gets tomato sauce all over its blouse.
Welcome back to the U.S. Open (scores).
Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, conceded that Saturday’s drying wind caught officials by surprise, which left the course a little more difficult later in the day than he would’ve liked. Davis fell on his sword in a post-round chat with Fox Sports, saying, “Frankly, we just missed it with the wind. The greens got fast. The firmness was OK, but the speed was too much. It was a very tough test but too tough.”
Other hints that this is the Open: Rickie Fowler shot 84, Patrick Rodgers posted 83 and Mickelson fired an 81. Somewhere, maybe Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are feeling giddier about missing the cut.
The greens picked up speed and firmness, and the fickle Long Island Sound breezes made their presence known, too.
Tony Finau and Daniel Berger were Saturday superstars. They fired 66s and got off the course before Shinnecock got nasty late in the afternoon. Berger teed off nearly five hours before the leaders, Johnson and Scott Piercy; Finau a little more than four hours before.
The best way to charge up the Open leaderboard was to sit in the clubhouse or the hotel or a nearby casino and laugh while your name rises through the ranks. When Johnson three-putted the final green for bogey, the unlikely happened: Berger and Finau sat tied for the lead with Johnson and Brooks Koepka, and will go out in the final twosome this afternoon. Incredible.
Berger, a 25-year-old Florida State alumnus who was on the losing end of that Spieth bunker shot in Hartford last summer, said conditions were pretty challenging even by early afternoon.
“Some of these pins are three steps off the edges,” he said. “If you hit one 3 feet past the hole, it’s going 40 yards away from the green. To get out there early and play a good round really was to my benefit. If someone shoots 4 under this afternoon, it’s more like 8 under.”
Nobody did, and that’s how Berger and Finau found themselves in Sunday’s spotlight.
“I barely made the cut, so I was really pleased with my round today,” Finau said. “I needed something special to happen to even have an outside chance.”
He had no idea when he finished that his outside chance would turn into an inside straight.
The only other score in the 60s was posted by Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who shot 68. The rest of the players near the top of the 36-hole leaderboard struggled, starting with Johnson, whose four-shot lead evaporated with a front-nine 41 that featured shaky missed short putts and repeated visits to the man-eating fescue.
This third round didn’t feature fiery NASCAR crashes as much as it did a bunch of rear-ending fender benders that involved almost every player.
The result is, this Open is now wide Open again. Eight players are within three shots of Johnson, who steadied himself on the back nine, mostly, and shot 77 to finish at 3 over par. If anyone has a memory short enough to forget this third round, it’s the almost pulse-less Johnson.
The other contenders are formidable:
Koepka: The defending Open champ, something of a Johnson clone, made only two birdies but showed off a short game that saved shots. Don’t overlook him. “My track record in U.S. Opens is pretty good,” the low-key Koepka said. “I feel like the harder, the better.”
Justin Rose: The Englishman, and 2013 Open champ, is kicking himself for making bogeys at two of the three closing holes. He’s one back and knows a thing about coming from behind. It was Rose who came from way back to overhaul Johnson and win the World Golf Championships event in China last fall.
Henrik Stenson: If the Open were played on a bowling alley, I’d pick Stenson to hit 13 fairways. His straight ball travels well to every major. He made only one birdie in the third round, but this tournament isn’t about birdies; it’s about not making bogeys. He bogeyed four of the last six, however, to drop two off the lead.
Patrick Reed: The Masters champion has been under the radar for most of the week. Saturday, he racked up five birdies, including four on the front nine, and sits only three strokes back. He showed in Augusta just how tough he is when the pressure is on. You probably can get decent odds on Reed to win. I’d take them.
Jim Furyk: Where did this 48-year-old come from? The 2003 U.S. Open champion, who got a special exemption into the tournament, closed to within three shots by posting a 72.
“It’s been fun,” Furyk said. “It was great to wake up this morning and be like, I’ve got a 1:53 tee time. That’s pretty cool on a weekend. I haven’t been able to do that in a while.”
The U.S. Open concludes today. All we know is one thing: It won’t be easy.