SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The golf course was on the edge for the third round of the 118th U.S. Open, and so were the players. Phil Mickelson lost his mind (though he refused to plead temporary insanity) and Dustin Johnson lost his lead, along with a good chunk of his invincible aura. At the end of a wild day at Shinnecock Hills, Johnson found himself in a four-way tie atop the leaderboard with Daniel Berger, Tony Finau and Brooks Koepka. Eighteen players were within six strokes and everyone was feeling edgy.
Pat Perez putted a ball off the 15th green – a handful of other players did as well thanks to a fiendish pin position – and when asked about the course conditions afterward he said, “I don’t want to get fined so I’m not going to comment on it. But let’s just say it’s the USGA.” He could summon no more damning description.
In a widely circulated interview with Sky Sports, Zach Johnson said, “We’re not on the edge. I thought we could be on the edge, but we’ve surpassed it. It’s pretty much shot. … Unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course.”
Shinnecock was a brutally tough but fair test over the first two rounds, the course softened by rain on Wednesday and Friday. Saturday brought the hottest weather of the week along with steady zephyrs. Berger, a pleasantly cocky 25 year old from Florida with two career wins, and Finau, 28, a lanky bomber from Utah of Tongan and Samoan descent who has won once on Tour, both teed off before 11 a.m., each 11 strokes off the lead. They shot matching 66s in relatively benign conditions to reach three over for the week. They were barely on the fringe of contention when the leaders teed off at 3:10, but as Shinnecock baked in the sun and the wind both players began inexorably moving up the leaderboard. By day’s end they had earned a spot in Sunday final pairing thanks largely to Johnson’s disastrous front nine. The 2016 U.S. Open champ (at mighty Oakmont), Johnson had snuffed the life out of this championship with a second round 67, taking a four-stroke lead built on clutch and at times spectacular putting. But as Shinnecock’s greens turned crusty and ever more treacherous in the scorching sun, Johnson became utterly spooked. He took 20 putts on the front nine as part of a disastrous 41. (He averaged 26.5 putts each of the first two rounds…for the full 18 holes.) Johnson’s self-immolation threw the tournament wide open.
Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champ, claimed a share of the lead by playing the first seven holes in one under to reach even par overall. Henrik Stenson caught him with a front-nine 34 built on metronomic ball-striking and gritty efforts on short-range putts, but Rose made three consecutive bogeys around the turn and would shoot 73, leaving himself in 5th place, one off the lead. Stenson would make five bogeys on the back nine, fading to 6th place, two back. When Koepka, the defending champ, stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 11th hole and made birdie he suddenly had the outright lead, at even. But the back nine turned into a war of attrition – Koepka would bogey three of his final seven holes – in part because a series of pin positions Perez called “ridiculous.” They were exacerbated by strong gusts that left the course parched and made every downwind putt an adventure. “It’s crazy how much firmer it has gotten since yesterday,” says Justin Thomas, who shot a 74 to sit at eight over and expressed surprise he still had a glimmer of hope at victory. “It’s like a completely different golf course.”
Mickelson, on his 48th birthday, came so undone on the 13th hole he purposefully putted a moving ball rather than let it trickle off the green, earning a two-stroke penalty (per rule 14-5) and widespread opprobrium. Former USGA executive director David Fay says he would have called for Mickelson to be disqualified under rule 1-2, which states, “A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in play or (ii) alter physical conditions with the intent of affecting the playing of a hole.” It includes the clause, “In the case of a serious breach of Rule 1-2, the Committee may impose a penalty of disqualification.” Mickelson apologized to anyone he may have offended even as he seemed smugly satisfied by what he called “my understanding of the rules.” Later, he sent a text to a handful of reporters further elucidating the rules but allowing it was “not my finest moment.” Phil always wants to be seen as the cleverest guy in the room; this time he may have outsmarted himself.]
Amidst all of this craziness, only one player seemed to keep his cool: amazingly, it was Johnson. A gorgeous tee shot on 11 led to birdie and three fairways-and-greens pars followed, what constituted a charge on this day. When Rose meekly three-putted the 16th hole, Johnson’s lead was back to two strokes. He was displaying about as much emotion as Reteif Goosen, who won the 2004 Open at Shinnecock on a similarly torched course. Goosen was once struck by lightning and played that Open as if he didn’t have any pulse at all.
“No one in golf can take a punch like Dustin,” says his swing coach Claude Harmon III. “What would break other players, he just shrugs off. I’m not sure anyone in golf has ever had his ability to bounce back from hardship.”
But a wild tee shot on the 15th hole with an iron in his hand cost Johnson a bogey and on 18 he squandered two perfect shots with a three-putt from a scary spot above the hole, a dispiriting end to his 77. “I didn’t feel like I played badly at all,” Johnson said afterward, with his typical glass-half-full spin. “Seven over usually is a terrible score, but with the greens the way they got this afternoon, I mean, they were very, very difficult.”
Sunday should not be a similar bloodbath, given that following the third round USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted him and his people had “screwed up” the setup. More water on the greens overnight and more sensible pin positions should ensure a monstrous but ultimately reasonable test, which is what the U.S. Open should be. It will be fascinating to watch which player can handle being pushed to the breaking point – physically, emotionally, spiritually. “It’s a different kind of fun,” Rose said. “It’s not fun-fun but the crowds are having fun with it.” Indeed, after last year’s U.S. Open, when Erin Hills was rendered defenseless by rain-softened greens and the wind never blew, there was widespread clamoring for a return to a more penal setup that would separate the men from the boys. “Be careful what you wish for,” Rose said. “We’ve all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week.”