Though all eyes are on Louis Oosthuizen, Russell Henley and Mackenzie Hughes at the 121st U.S. Open, three former U.S. Open champions also made moves on Saturday and vaulted into contention.
2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy started the day at 1-over, six shots behind Henley and co-second round leader Richard Bland, but a sparkling 67, the low round of the day at Torrey Pines’ South Course, vaulted him into a tie for third place with defending champion Bryson DeChambeau at 3-under, just two shots behind the trio of co-leaders.
Rory torched the back nine, carding four birdies, including a masterstroke at the gargantuan 505-yard par-4 12th where he nearly holed his approach out of the rough, leaving just a kick-in for birdie at the hardest hole on the golf course. At the short par-5 18th his 95-foot putt for eagle crested the ridge that bisects, the green, meandered drunkenly across the poa, then tracked towards the hole before agonizingly staying on the lip for a closing birdie.
“I felt like I didn’t quite get as much out of my game yesterday and Thursday, but I did today,” McIlroy said, heading straight to the practice range immediately following his round. “It’s just from playing the Farmers, the regular PGA Tour stop, that I’ve always played well and felt comfortable here; I’ve shot well, some descent scores.”
Despite all the heroics that had patrons and viewers reminiscing of his dominance at Congressional where he shattered almost every major U.S. Open scoring record – yesterday was the tenth anniversary of his triumph at the Blue Course, another redesign of Rees Jones just as Torrey Pines is – it was a gutsy bogey at the 15th that may have saved McIlroy’s tournament. He pulled his tee shot into the canyon and had to take a penalty and a drop.
McIlroy had an unplayable lie for two reasons actually: not only couldn’t he get a club on the ball, but a 20-foot rattlesnake was slithering within hissing distance of his Taylor Made.
McIlroy left his recovery shot 40 yards short of the green, but facing another dicey, nerve-rattling pitch, to a tucked pin, he got up and down, sinking a testy six-foot putt and then giving a raucous fist pump to the fans.
“You get a chance to recover at Torrey Pines, and I showed that over the last few holes today,” he noted gratefully. “That was huge to keep the momentum. This is the only tournament in the world where you fist pump a bogey.”
Finishing over two hours before the leaders, McIlroy watched as over half a dozen players percolated down the leader board, meaning he will play in the second-to-last group of the day along with co-leader Russell Henley. Louis Oosthuizen, winner of the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, will play in the final group with Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes. McIlroy has won a total of four majors, all of which he led after 36 holes, including back-to-back wins at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, (where he won wire-to-wire with no ties), and the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Entering the final round just two shots behind the leaders, McIlroy has never had to come from behind to win any of his four major titles.
“This is the most demanding golf tournament in the world; you must stay in the present, in the moment,” McIlroy admitted candidly, smiling almost sheepishly. “2011 felt like a walk in the park, compared to this. I’m gonna have to fight a little more than I did that year.”
A bogey-free 68 places defending champion Bryson DeChambeau at 3-under as well. Turning conventional wisdom on its head and inverting the usual U.S. Open game plan, DeChambeau is bludgeoning drivers seemingly anywhere he likes and then gauging wedges out, turning Torrey into his own personal pitch and putt. He hit only a paltry five fairways, but he hit 15 greens in regulation. U.S. Open rough?! What U.S. Open rough? He even birdied the 534 yards par-4 sixth hole, the longest par-4 in U.S. Open history, with a 365 yard drive and a 170 yard wedge.
“It’s kind of the way the course was set up for me. When I miss it, because I hit it pretty far, I’m going to miss it off line quite a bit, so that plays kind of into my advantage a little bit more because where the people are walking, it’s trampled down and you get some good lies out of that,” DeChambeau explained. “That was all part of the strategy. I knew that there was going to be people walking and trampling, and if it was a bad lie, I can still run it to the front of the green and hit it out from there.”
DeChambeau has improved his score each day of the tournament. After opening with a 73, he posted a 69 on Friday and a 68 today, just two shots behind. He will play in the third-to-last pairing with Scottie Scheffler, who stands at 2-under.
One other Open champion played himself into contention: 2016 winner Dustin Johnson posted a 3-under 68 for the day, placing him at 1-under for the tournament, just four shots behind the leaders and in a tie for ninth place with four other golfers. Just like DeChambeau, DJ also hit only five fairways, but he ran the table on the greens. Despite hitting just nine greens in regulation, he one-putted eight consecutive times on the back nine and needed only a stingy 24 putts for the entire round, six better than either of his two previous days.
“Obviously I was grinding a lot for pars, but was putting well. I just didn’t give myself a whole lot of opportunities, but when I did, I capitalized on it. The few fairways I hit, I played the golf course really well. I felt like I always was giving myself a really good look at birdie,” Johnson lamented. “But I feel like I’m swinging the irons really good, just need to drive it a little bit straighter tomorrow.”
DJ, who also won the 2020 Masters last November, started the day at 2-over par, seven shots behind. He’ll play the final round with 2020 PGA Champion Collin Morakawa. Americans Xander Schauffle and Kevin Streelmen and South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout are also at 1-under.
“I still feel like by the end of the day, I’m going to be in a really good position to go out and, if I can go out and shoot a good score tomorrow, probably going to have a chance,” Johnson stated.