USGA drama-proofed U.S. Open with nasty third-round setup at Pinehurst No. 2

Rory McIlroy
Getty
Rory McIlroy struggled all day at Pinehurst No. 2 Saturday, especially on the front-nine where he carded a 40.

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Par is an idol in Far Hills, N.J., for 51 weeks a year. The 52nd week, the USGA takes its show on the road to iconic courses that need no introduction. Pinehurst, Pebble, Oakmont, Shinnecock. For one -- maybe two -- days of that week, they allow green complexes to bake out, set dastardly pins and dare players to take aim. Tough tests are synonymous with the U.S. Open, and par must be protected like a queen in a castle. Modern course setups on the Tour schedule are anything but distinctive, and the heightened degree of difficulty ("The toughest test in golf," they like to say) is a big part of what makes the U.S. Open special. 

Not today. The USGA lost any chance of a compelling Sunday in their premier event with Saturday’s course setup.

Two players finished under par during the third round of the U.S. Open with Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton carding 67s. Five players shot level par. Sixty players couldn’t break 70. No player made it through the day without at least one bogey. Poor Toru Taniguchi shot an 88. It was the lowest number of sub-par rounds at a U.S. Open since the final round at Oakmont in 2007.

After two days doing his best Tiger Woods-circa 2001 impression, Kaymer returned to this planet with a 2-over 72. He had played flawlessly in his two opening rounds, and it didn’t matter where pins were, how far back tees were pushed or what the weather was like. Kaymer was second in fairways hit (25 of 28), fifth in greens in regulation (26 of 36) and fourth in total putts (54). When a player gets in a groove like that, 65-65 happens. Records are broken.

The USGA responded by attempting to Kaymer-proof No. 2. Instead, they tied one hand behind the back of every player trying to go low to make up ground on Kaymer.

“Every pin was pretty much in its toughest position out there today,” said two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen. “They made sure there were no low scores out there.”

“It was probably the hardest setup I've ever experienced in a major championship,” said Kenny Perry, who’s played in 50 majors from 1988 to 2014. The end result was a lack of a sustained challenge from the bevy of capable players lurking on the leaderboard.
Kaymer’s play on Saturday was shaky at times. He badly missed four fairways after missing just three in his opening two rounds. He failed to coax in the 10-12 footers he dropped with ease Thursday and Friday. He appeared to be plummeting from the stratosphere back to earth. What the USGA did Saturday was make sure no player was able to jump him -- or even reach striking distance -- on his way down. The scoring average on Day 3 was a full stroke higher than Day 2. If the setup was less penal, there’s a good chance at least one of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson or Rory McIlroy could have broken par to make some kind of run at Kaymer.

Those dreams were dashed when the pin sheet was released Saturday morning, and along with it, any hope of a dramatic finale.

Kaymer teed off at 3:25 p.m. with a six-shot lead that matched Woods (2000) and McIlroy (2011) for the largest 36-hole margin in U.S. Open history. Woods and McIlroy both finished off their respective fields in dominant fashion, winning by 15 and eight strokes.

Tiger’s victory was his third-career major and the start of an eventual "Tiger Slam," where he would go on to hold all four major championship trophies at the same time. His runaway at Pebble was the most-watched U.S. Open at the time since 1987.

Rory McIlroy’s victory at Congressional marked his first major title and the beginning of the then-21-year-old’s ascent up the World Ranking. He was the youngest U.S. Open champ in over a century.

We watched two of the game’s superior stars plant their flags in the ground as the next great player of their generation. For all of his accolades -- the 2010 PGA, Ryder Cup magic, the 2014 Players -- Martin Kaymer is no Tiger. He’s not even a Rory in terms of marketing potential and transcendent talent.

Drama was killed Saturday morning before a single player teed off. But par was saved.

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