UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Cinderella had a g’day at the 115th United States Open on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Australia’s Jason Day gamely overcame vertigo symptoms that felled him on the final green Friday and forced him to back off several shots Saturday while doggedly playing his way back into contention. He birdied three of the final four holes despite feeling nauseous and shot a two-under-par 68, the day’s lowest score next to Louis Oosthuizen’s 66.
Day, 27, walked slowly, bent over carefully to read putts and somehow plodded his way through 18 long, unforgiving holes at tough Chambers Bay in what turned into the round of the day and positioned him as the tournament’s newly minted sentimental favorite. Fans who’d seen Friday’s highlights when Day collapsed on the final green, a scary moment, cheered him on around the course throughout Saturday’s round.
The 68 left Day at 4-under par for 54 holes and in a four-way tie for first with long-hitter Dustin Johnson, South African Branden Grace and Masters champion Jordan Spieth. Cameron Smith, Oosthuizen, Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes were tied for fifth at one under par.
Johnson and Grace shot 70s, and Spieth posted a 71 on Saturday. Spieth had an eight-footer for birdie on the final hole and a chance to take the solo lead going into Sunday’s final round but he missed the putt to the right and disgustedly started walking after it immediately.
LEADERBOARD: Full Scores From A Wild Saturday At Chambers Bay
“I didn’t have my best stuff today,” Spieth said. “I’ve had my best stuff at times this week so I’m pretty sure I know where it is and can get it tomorrow. To be seven under par and finish at four under is a little disappointing but I’m very pleased with my position. Since all four of us are tied, we can all control our destinies tomorrow.”
Day’s illness and his battle against it stole the spotlight from what was expected to be a duel between 36-hole co-leaders Spieth and Patrick Reed. Some errant drives led to a pair of double bogeys on the front nine for Reed, who needed two shots to escape the gaping greenside bunker at the second hole, and then Reed dug himself into deeper trouble with a third double at the 10th hole and a bogey at the 11th.
Reed shot a six-over 76 and finished the day five strokes out of the lead. Spieth threatened to pull away from everyone early. He rolled in a pair of length birdie putts on the second and third holes, shocking developments considering how few putts had been going in on Chambers Bay’s bumpy fine fescue greens. That gave Spieth, a 21-year-old from Dallas, a three-shot edge over Grace. It didn’t last as Spieth struggled on the greens and bogeyed three of the next four holes. From that point on, a foursome of players circled around the lead but it was Day, playing with the uncertainty over whether he’d be able to finish the round, who stole the spotlight.
Day clearly struggled on the front nine, posting two bogeys and seven pars. He had a doctor, his personal trainer, a pair of medics and two security personnel walking with his twosome the whole round.
He said he felt a bit better after the first nine and then he proved it, lighting up on the back with a four-under 31 and a round of 68.
“I didn’t feel that great coming out early, and then I felt pretty groggy on the front nine just from the drugs that I had in my system,” Day said after the round. “They kind of flushed out on the back nine. But then the vertigo came back a little bit on the 13th tee box, and then I felt nauseous all day. I started shaking on the 16th tee box. I just tried to get it in, really. I just wanted to get it in.”
He did, and he got to the house in style. When Day got his third shot close on the par-5 18th and then stroked in the birdie putt that temporarily put him into a tie for the lead, the grandstand fans responded with the loudest roar of the tournament and a standing ovation. Day didn’t exactly stagger off the green, but he walked slightly unevenly and without much of a smile as he shook hands with everyone on the green and made his way to the scoring area. He was just happy to have made it through all 18 holes. Given that, his three birdies on the final four holes were nothing short of impressive.
The day’s second biggest cheer probably came at the 16th hole, a beautiful downhill par 4 16th that runs parallel to the railway on the right. Holmes blasted a drive that ran over the green into a bunker, the splashed a bunker shot beyond the pin to catch a backboard slope. Holmes played it perfectly and watched his ball reverse direction off the slope, roll back, clank off the pin and drop into the cup for an eagle.
“It’s pretty special to be in contention in a U.S. Open on Saturday and have that happen,” said Holmes, a Kentucky native. “That’s pretty awesome. I’ll definitely log that in the memory bank as a great moment in my career.”
The eagle by Holmes was big because birdies seemed harder to come by Saturday than the first two rounds. Only six players posted scores in the 60s. Ben Martin, who’d been near the lead after 36 holes, ballooned to an 86. The wind switched direction from the southwest to the northwest, making Chambers Bay play harder. The greens were still firm and a little bouncy and the pins were U.S. Open challenging.
Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, shot an even-par 70 to finish at four over par probably out of contention barring a miracle round. He hasn’t putted well all week, although he ran in a putt on the final green, naturally, and had to smile.
McIlroy responded to the comment from the previous day by Henrik Stenson, who said Chambers Bay’s greens were so rough they were like putting on broccoli. “They aren’t green enough to be broccoli,” McIlroy said. “They’re more like cauliflower.”
Stenson shot 72 in the third round and moved into a tie for 11th, after posting a photo of his lunch plate that humorously featured a big pile of green broccoli.
The comeback of the day belonged to Oosthuizen, the quiet South African whose nickname is Shrek. Oosthuizen began the round at three over par and on a tough scoring day, his 66 made a nice charged up the leaderboard. “I was nine over par through 20 holes and it looked like I would have been back in Florida today,” said Oosthuizen, who won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews. “I made a few putts yesterday and started hitting the ball really well. I found a swing with my driver this morning on the range and it seemed to go from there. I hit it really close on a lot of holes, my score probably could have been a lot lower.”
Oosthuizen made five birdies and parred the closing five holes. He bears watching in Sunday’s final round.
“If I hit it the way I did today, I’ve got a pretty good chance to put a good number up there again,” he said. “Ballstriking is keen to really pinpoint where you want to pitch it on the greens. The greens are so firm and the grass is pretty dead so you need to work the slopes on the greens to get it close and I did that today.”
Oosthuizen said he missed some short, makeable putts at the seventh, eight, ninth, tenth and 18h holes but added, “I made a few good ones as well. I’m very happy with this round.”
Sunday’s finale will be all about who can make the fewest mistakes at Chambers Bay and play the smartest golf.
“We all dream of this and we all practice for this, so it’s a matter whether you grab it or you don’t,” said Grace. “I played really good today under the pressure. I think I’m in a good frame of mind. Tomorrow is just going to be another tough grind.”
Spieth is playing to keep alive his chance to win the Grand Slam this year and he’ll be a crowd favorite. Day’s underdog Cinderella status will make him popular with the crowd, too.
Johnson and Grace shouldn’t be overlooked. Johnson has the power and Grace splits fairways with ease, which makes him dangerous here.
Sunday will be a tense round and with an interesting group of contenders. It could be another g’day, mate.