SAN DIEGO – There were plenty of intriguing storylines, but little hiss, in the first half of the 2021 United States Open. England’s Richard Bland, who qualified for the championship by winning his first European Tour event after 477 failed attempts, was tied with Russell Henley, a PGA Tour veteran whose last tournament win was four years ago.
The spotlight on America’s national golf championship was desperate for a familiar face.
In Saturday’s third round at Torrey Pines golf course, the sport’s headliners finally stepped to the edge of the podium, a skilled, decorated squad that could predict a star-powered and thrilling finish to Sunday’s final round.
Henley finished the round at five under par overall and remained at the top of the standings, shared by another lesser-known player, Mackenzie Hughes of Canada. But with a thrilling 52-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole, Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion from South Africa, also jumped to a tie for first place. In addition, Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion, and Bryson DeChambeau, the defending US Open champion, collected attacks taking them two strokes from the lead at three under.
Jon Rahm, a prominent tournament favorite for his stellar play over the past month, was second under, as was the resurrected Matthew Wolff, last year’s runner-up in the event, and Scottie Scheffler, another promising young player with several recent top finishes. Not overlooked with just four strokes off the lead were last year’s Masters champion Dustin Johnson, who shot a 68 on Saturday, and Collin Morikawa, the winner of the 2020 PGA Championship.
“Yeah, I guess it was moving day,” McIlroy said afterwards. “A lot of guys play well and get into the fight. You have to do that in the third round of a major.”
McIlroy started slow on Saturday but had four birdies and a bogey on his last nine to finish with a 67, which was six strokes better than his second-round performance. His late run started when he chipped in from 33 yards on the 12th hole, and it ended with a nervous downhill two-putt from 62 feet at the par-5 18th hole.
Though McIlroy said the biggest shot from his back nine was a 4 foot bogey putt on the 15th hole.
“This is the only tournament in the world where you make a bogey with your fist,” he said. “That putt was huge for momentum — not to give away two strokes.”
The superstitious McIlroy also said he would eat the same chicken sandwich he’d had at Torrey Pines for the previous five dinners this week.
“It’s really good, and it really works for me,” McIlroy said.
DeChambeau had the clearest day among the leaders, shooting a 68 without bogeying. DeChambeau’s lap could have been better as he crushed many rounds of about 340m. But his approach shots didn’t always find the greens. Still, DeChambeau overpowered the long first and sixth holes to birdies each and took advantage of the par-5 13th hole for a third birdie.
Most encouraging to DeChambeau was his sharp short game, something he relied on during his win at last year’s US Open. DeChambeau is known for how far he hits the golf ball, playing efficiently near the greens and putting accurately, these are usually the best predictors of his success.
As has been the case for the past few weeks, DeChambeau was also taunted on Saturday by fans who shouted “Let’s go, Brooks-y” after many of his swings — a nod to the ongoing feud with his colleague Brooks Koepka.
DeChambeau said afterwards that he had learned to treat the catchphrases “as a compliment.”
“I embrace it – I smile,” he said.
Koepka, who, like DeChambeau, started the day right away, did not improve his position with three birdies and three bogeys for a 71.
Wolff had an erratic day, shooting 73 with four bogeys, but after not playing competitively for the past two months, he was content to stay in the hunt for the championship.
“I was a hair out of that at times,” said Wolff, 22. “But I felt like I grounded pretty well and kept the scores as low as possible to give myself a good chance going into tomorrow.”
Henley was one under par on his first nine holes and had a two-shot lead on the field, a lead he maintained when he shot from a right-hand greenside bunker on the eleventh hole and saw his ball bounce once and then in the hole for a birdie.
But it was Henley’s last birdie in a round of 71 tie.
Hughes caught Henley with a blistering back nine and shot a four-under 32. He will play in the final group on Sunday with Oosthuizen.
“You get goosebumps just thinking about it,” Hughes said of the matchup on Saturday night. “I know I will be nervous tomorrow. But yeah, I’m going to try to enjoy it a lot. You know, it’s where you want to be.”
Bland, after his stunning rise in Friday’s second round, appeared calm through his first nine holes on Saturday with an uncomplicated swing that consistently yielded par and birdie putts. But some of the magic of his putting stroke was missing. Bland had converted 31 of 31 putts within 10 feet in the first two rounds. That streak ended on the fifth hole, when he missed an 8-foot par putt and made a bogey.
It got worse, with consecutive bogeys on the 11th and 12th holes. Bland then shorted a 2-meter par putt on the 16th hole, and his 20-meter par putt on the 17th green slid down the right side of the hole. The par-5 18th hole came to a most disgraceful end when Bland’s third shot popped into the pond in front of the green. That led to a third consecutive bogey, as he finished with a 77 and was one left for the tournament.
“That’s the US Open — some days it’ll just beat you up all day,” Bland said shortly after his round. “And today was my day.”
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