Like a crafty fighter lulling an opponent into complacency, The Country Club punched back hard on Saturday, rocking the game’s best and setting up a Sunday at the U.S. Open with no clear favorite.
Winds picked up into the high teens. Greens dried out and thumped. The rough, allowed to grow, swallowed wayward shots and held on. The field as a whole shot nearly a stroke and a half worse than Friday’s average of 71.99, and the Friday night lead of -5 fell a stroke, to -4. At the beginning of the day, 23 players were under par; by Saturday evening, only nine were.
“This place is a beast,” co-leader Will Zalatoris said afterward. “It’s just so easy to compound mistakes out here, which, of course, you can do that in major championships in general, but especially this one.”
Zalatoris, who began the day four shots off the lead, claimed the clubhouse lead at -4 with a 67, the low round of the day. Zalatoris has made a habit of playing ridiculously well in majors; in his last seven majors, he has five top-eight finishes, a missed cut and a withdrawal. He lost to Justin Thomas in a playoff in last month’s PGA Championship, but has played himself right back into contention just four weeks later. But contention isn’t a championship.
“Obviously, there’s a ton of major champions on this leaderboard, and by no means is the job done,” he said. “Not even close. But just keep doing what I’m doing. Make sure I just get myself on the green as fast as I can or at least minimize the mistakes.”
About 45 minutes after Zalatoris took over the solo lead, Matthew Fitzpatrick (-4) birdied 14 and 15 to pull into a tie with Zalatoris, then birdied 17 to claim the outright lead. Fitzpatrick, who’s spent a lot of time on “next to break through” lists, is one of the few players in the field with experience at The Country Club prior to this week, having won the U.S. Amateur at Brookline in 2013. He gave back a stroke on the 18th, but still heads into Sunday tied with Zalatoris.
“I certainly think [the 2013 win] gives me an edge over the others, yeah. I genuinely do believe that. It’s a real, obviously, positive moment in my career. It kind of kickstarted me,” he said. “To come back here and play so well again, it kind of just gives me growing confidence round by round.”
Jon Rahm (-3), the defending champion, shook off some early jitters to channel some of his Ryder Cup mojo — three birdies over four holes — and take the lead at -5 with two holes to play. But a disastrous 18th — he took two shots to get out of a fairway bunker, buried his approach in a greenside bunker, and ended up with a double-bogey — cost him the lead heading into Sunday.
Even more stunning was the sharp descent of Masters champion Scottie Scheffler (-2). He eagled the eighth, holing out from 101 yards, to get to -6, the farthest below par reached yet this week. But he gave it all back and much more on the back nine, going five-over in the course of just four holes. With a victory Sunday, Scheffler would become the first player since Jordan Spieth in 2015 to win both the Masters and the U.S. Open, and some steady play on the final few holes kept him in position to do just that.
“The U.S. Open is very taxing, mentally and physically. I think that’s all part of what this makes this tournament so fun. You’re going to get tested all different kinds of ways, whether it be physically, mentally, whatever it is. This golf tournament is going to test you,” he said. “That’s why I show up here. I think that’s kind of the fun of it. If every golf tournament was like this, it would be in for a long season for all of us. A few times a year I think it’s a ton of fun.”
The most disastrous round of the day belonged to Collin Morikawa (+2), the Friday night co-leader, who appeared to lose every bit of the touch that had generated a 66 on Friday. Two separate bogey-double bogey back-to-backs helped obliterate his card, leaving him +7 for the day and +2 for the week. Morikawa had been tinkering with a swing change coming into the week, and on Saturday, it finally caught up with him.
Rory McIlroy (-1) did pretty much everything he could to vaporize his chances early, bogeying three of the first six holes to fall as far as five strokes off the lead. But he stayed steady, at one point one-putting eight of nine holes, and kept himself within striking distance of the lead. Given that he’s managed to detonate nearly every major in the last eight years with one bad round, the fact that he was able to hold together on Saturday could bode well for a run at a fifth major.
“It was one of the toughest days on a golf course I’ve had in a long time. I just needed to grind it out, and I did on the back nine,” he said. “Just kept myself in the tournament. That’s all I was trying to do. Just keep hanging around.”
Also in close: Keegan Bradley (-2), the 2011 PGA Championship winner and a local Boston product. He threw out the first pitch earlier this week at Fenway Park, and walked up the fairway at 18 to a raucous Boston reception.
“Honestly, it was one of the most amazing moments of my entire life,” Bradley said afterward. “I got to feel what it feels like to play in Fenway, to play in the Garden, to play in Gillette Stadium. I felt like a Boston player there. That was a moment I’ll never forget the rest of my life, and I appreciate the fans giving me that, and I hope to have them cheer again [Sunday].”
The tight leaderboard allowed for cameo appearances from multiple players who happened to have a good hole at the right time. Adam Hadwin also finished at -2, and Patrick Rodgers and Nick Hardy were among those who worked their way to within two strokes of the lead, even as Aaron Wise, Hayden Buckley, Joel Dahmen and Matthew NeSmith saw their strong Friday night positions wither away.
(Painful) shot of the day
How tough was it out there on the greens at The Country Club? Travis Vick was 12 yards from the pin. After this chip, which he could only watch roll, and roll, and roll, he was 75 yards away. He would go on to make a quadruple-bogey nine on the hole:
Sunday’s conditions are forecast to be cooler and windier than Saturday, meaning that the U.S. Open is setting up for an even more chaotic final afternoon.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.