U.S. Open: Brutal Saturday at blood-and-guts may have cost Dustin Johnson

Players struggled during Round 3 of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Dustin Johnson leads the field after scuffling on an incredibly difficult Saturday.

Comedian Lewis Black describes golf as a game for people who don’t hate themselves enough in their normal lives. After Round 3 at Shinnecock Hills, it’s fair to say there was more than little hatred out on the course from the U.S. Open field. If there were any question how the USGA felt about the field taking apart Erin Hills at last year’s championship, we got our answer this week in Southampton.

Given the high scores, we may remember Saturday as ‘The Slaughter at Shinnecock.’ Or maybe ‘RIP on the LIRR.’ By the time the leaders made the turn, there wasn’t a player in red figures as one of the greatest championship venues in golf bared its razor-sharp teeth.

Dustin Johnson began the day 4-under, four clear of the field as the 36-hole leader. By the 8th hole, he was 6-over for the day and looking up at the leaders. On a day when pars were more like birdies and real birdies were nearly unthinkable, Johnson managed to fight back with a birdie at the 11th. As the field crumbled around him, it didn’t take any more birdies from DJ to re-take the lead. An ugly three-putt (are there any other kind?) on 18 cost him the outright lead and a spot in the final pairing.

Johnson finished 3-over for the championship with a 7-over 77 and in an incredible move, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau each shot 66 to move from 11 shots back at start of play to tie for the U.S. Open lead. Brooks Koepka, the 2017 champion, briefly held the lead, as did 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson, though Koepka was able to hold his position and take a share of the lead into Sunday. Koepka and Johnson will play together, the last two winners of this championship.

For some added symmetry, they’ll be part of the the first over-par U.S. Open leaders since 2007 at Oakmont, the course where Johnson won his first major championship at the 2016 U.S. Open.

Meanwhile, the vitriol toward the course setup came even from unlikely sources like Zach Johnson who insisted the USGA “lost the golf course.” If the mild-mannered Johnson thought enough to voice his frustration, you know things got out of hand.

In fact, the greens were so treacherous, Phil Mickelson did something utterly unthinkable. After watching his putt slide by on the 13th, he jogged over and hit it back to the hole while it was still moving. And in case you’re wondering, no you can’t do that. Lefty earned a two-shot penalty and wound up carding a 10. He said he didn’t feel like playing ping-pong with the hole and there were PGA Tour pros who took to Twitter, insisting he should have been disqualified (By rule, the USGA could have DQ’s him).

Mickelson wasn’t the only one dealing with the diabolical putting surfaces. Players were putting off the green, or hitting iron shots that ran not just through the green, but 40 yards off the back as Justin Rose did at one point. The 15th hole created such carnage, one of the Fox broadcast analysts referred to the pin location as embarrassing.

Rickie Fowler would have loved to have the day Mickelson (81) had. He slashed the ball around the windy Shinny fairways and wound up posting a 14-over 84,, despite starting the day 2-over and within shouting distance of the leaders.

The Friday cut was 8-over par, and 24 hours later, 8-over was tied for 16th.

USGA president Mike Davis admitted after the round, he and his team, in fact, did lose the course.

“No doubt, we would admit, there were some aspects of the setup that simply went too far int he sense that well-executed shots were not only not rewarded, but in some cases penalized,” he said on the Fox telecast.

Even Dustin Johnson, who had it on cruise control through 36 holes pounding drives in the fairway and putting beautifully, mangled his third round. Hit game got so ugly, the long-hitting Johnson started simply hitting iron off ever tee, trying to avoid the rightward miss he’d been struggling with most of the day.

But all DJ had to do was white knuckle to the finish. When Justin Rose made bogey on the par-5 16th, no one was within two shots of Johnson and suddenly Berger and Finau, who had finished hours earlier, were just two off the lead and in a tie for second.

Moments later, Johnson made bogey at 15 to bring the field one shot closer. If he’s going to win his second U.S. Open in three years, he’s going to have to sort out a swing that usually looks so good it feels like a glitch in the matrix.

Meanwhile, Brooks Koepka will have a chance to go back-to-back at the U.S. Open, the first time since Curtis Strange did it in 1988 and 1989. Coincidentally, Strange is doing on-the-course analysis for Fox. He has a chance to guys like Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan among the greats to pull off such a feat.

Speaking of historic feats, Patrick Reed, who started the day nine off the lead, shot a 1-over 71 and sits just three back. After winning the Masters, Reed has a chance to jumpstart a surpriseGrand Slam bid on Sunday.

For whatever criticism can be leveled on the USGA for the difficulty of certain holes, the leaderboard is jammed with top players and it’s unlikely we’ll get a fluke champion. In a blood-and-guts U.S. Open, that’s all fans can ask for on the weekend, especially at a venue as venerable as Shinnecock Hills.

There are four U.S. Open champions in the top 10 and five major champions, plus nascent stars with Finau and Berger. For a championship that prides itself on being the ultimate test of golf, the USGA and Shinny delivered even if it required some pushing of the boundaries of fair play. Whoever walks away with the trophy tomorrow evening, battered and bruised from a brutalizing golf course, will have earned it.

 

 

 

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