LOS ANGELES — World No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler closed with a flurry in the third round of the 123rd U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday.
Rickie Fowler? Not so much.
Fowler set a U.S. Open record with an 8-under 62 in the first round (so did Xander Schauffele) and gained only 2 strokes over the next 36 holes. Fowler is tied with Wyndham Clark for the 54-hole lead at 10 under. He would have held the outright lead overnight if he hadn’t inexplicably three-putted for bogey on the 18th, including a 3 1/2-footer for par that lipped out.
Still, Fowler is in one of the best positions of his career to win an elusive first major. He’ll try to do it in his 48th start in one.
“We all feel nerves at times, depending on certain shots or circumstances, but I mentioned it yesterday and then still stand by it,” Fowler said. “This is the best I’ve felt, let alone in a normal tournament but especially a major, and I would say really ever in my career.”
Clark, the 32nd-ranked player in the world, picked up his first PGA Tour victory at last month’s Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina. That was a designated event, in which he beat most of the PGA Tour’s best players in a 4-stroke victory. The Denver native seems confident that he can do it again.
“Obviously, it’s just Saturday, but it’s a little surreal to be in this situation,” Clark said. “Honestly, I’m really looking forward to tomorrow and the challenge it’s going to bring, and hopefully it’s my day.”
Rory McIlroy, the No. 3 player in the world, is only 1 stroke back. He carded a 1-under 69 on Saturday, his third straight subpar round, and is in a prime position to end a nearly nine-year drought without a major championship victory. McIlroy’s last win in one came at the 2014 PGA Championship.
McIlroy has been frustratingly close to ending the major drought. He tied for second at the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland. Last year, he finished in the top 10 in each of the four majors, including second at the Masters and third at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland.
It has been a dozen years since McIlroy won his only U.S. Open title at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, in June 2011. It would be the longest gap between U.S. Open victories in history and fifth longest for any major, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“It’s been such a long time since I’ve done it,” McIlroy said. “I’m going out there to try to execute a game plan, and I feel like over the last three days I’ve executed that game plan really, really well. I just need to do that for one more day.”
Fowler will have to hold off not only Clark and McIlroy but also Scheffler, who seemed too far back until the final two holes of the third round. After dropping to 4 under following a bogey on the 16th, Scheffler holed out from 196 yards for an eagle on the 17th. Then his balky putter came to life when he sank a 22-footer for a birdie on the 18th, which moved him to 7 under.
Just like that, the 2022 Masters champion was in the hunt for his second major championship victory. He’ll have to try to win this one from behind.
“You’re nervous whether or not you’re leading or chasing,” Scheffler said. “I want to win the golf tournament. It doesn’t matter what tournament it is. I’m showing up and I want to play good and I want to win. Going into tomorrow I’m going to be chasing, but it’s not going to feel any different.”
Each of the last 24 U.S. Open champions were within four shots of the lead entering the final round. All but seven of the past 49 were within 3 strokes heading into the last 18 holes, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Harris English is four strokes back. Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele are five behind. “Obviously, it would be huge,” Fowler said. “It would be great. Especially being here in Southern California, having a lot of people, family and friends that are out here this week. We have a chance tomorrow. After going through the last few years, I’m not scared to fail. I’ve dealt with that. We’re just going to go have fun, continue to try to execute, leave it all out there, see where we stand on 18.”
Hello, darkness, my old friend
Clark and Fowler weren’t happy about starting so late and having to finish in the near-dark. They didn’t tee off until 6:40 p.m. ET and finished more than four hours later. By then, the marine layer had returned and there wasn’t much sunlight.
“I mean, it’s a little ridiculous that we teed off that late,” Clark said. “I would say right around hole 15 or 16 it started getting to where you couldn’t see that well. We played twilight golf.”
Clark said his bogey on the 17th was “100 percent” because he couldn’t see, and he said Fowler’s on No. 18 was “because he couldn’t see.” Clark said he couldn’t see his putts on the last two holes, and that he and Fowler “just played off of feel.”
“I’d like to see us go off an hour and a half, two hours earlier,” Clark said. “If we had a playoff tomorrow we wouldn’t even be able to play the playoff tomorrow because it was so dark. With that, I’m not trying to make an excuse, but it definitely was a challenge.
“It’s kind of tough and it’s crazy to think that we’re doing that on the last two holes of a major when we could have teed off two hours earlier. Hopefully tomorrow we don’t have that issue.”
Clark got his wish. The co-leaders will tee off at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday, 70 minutes earlier than on Saturday.
Treacherous back nine
The back nine of the North Course has been grossly harder than the front all week. South Korean Tom Kim‘s third round might be evidence A of the difference in difficulty.
On Saturday, Kim tied a U.S. Open record for the lowest nine-hole score with a 29 on the front. He made birdies on Nos. 1, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9 and didn’t card a bogey. Kim made an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 4 and a 10-footer on No. 6.
Kim made the turn and added another birdie on the par-4 10th to move to 6 under and into the top 10, after starting his round tied for 107th at 1 over.
At that point, Kim started thinking about the possibilities.
“It did catch my mind once when I was 7-under, where, Man, if I can keep this going, have a good finish, and if the leaders kind of stumble, I might have a chance to be really close up there on Sunday,” Kim said “But it was a really short thought because I still had the hardest part of the golf course right in front of me.”
After Kim posted consecutive pars on Nos. 11 and 12, things fell apart. He missed the green on the par-4 13th and made a bogey. His tee shot on the par-3 15th was short and landed in the front bunker, resulting in another bogey.
On the par-4 16th, Kim’s tee shot settled in the native area, and he punched out into the rough. Another bogey dropped him to 3 under. He made par on the last two holes to finish 4-under 66. He is 3 under after 54 holes.
“To be honest, that back nine is really hard,” Kim said. “You just don’t really have any bail-outs. Those three bogeys really don’t feel like bogeys because I barely missed it by a yard or two. But major championship golf, U.S. Open really brings it out of you.”
On Saturday, the front-nine scoring average was 34.970. It was 36.880 on the back. According to Justin Ray of Twenty First Group, players were a combined 86 over par on the front nine through the first three rounds, 595 over on the back.
Changing it up
Golf fans got what they wanted on Saturday, as the par-3 15th hole was playing only 81 yards, making it the shortest par-3 in U.S. Open history. The previous shortest hole was the 92-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach Links in California in 2010.
Just because it wasn’t very long doesn’t necessarily mean it was easy. There were 11 birdies, 49 pars, four bogeys and one double bogey.
“I mean, it was 76 yards, 80-something to the hole,” Kim said. “You have four yards of green to work with. You’re long, you’re dead; you’re short, you’re dead. It’s a really simple wedge shot, but with the wind kind of going down to left, you’ve got to really hit it at the right time.”
Kim said you couldn’t bail out to the left side of the green, or you’d be left with a 40-foot putt down the hill. He wasn’t the only player who walked away with a bogey.
“It’s a wedge,” Kim said. “I think a bogey from 80 yards stats-wise isn’t great, but definitely double [bogey] is in play there.”
Padraig Harrington had one of the birdies.
“There’s a lovely upslope just left of the pin,” Harrington said. “As long as you go about four or five yards left of the pin, there’s a nice upslope.”
Bryson DeChambeau, who hits his golf ball further than just about everybody, was happy to walk away with a par. He hit a 60-degree wedge and teed his ball up higher than usual.
“I’m the happiest man alive that I hit that green,” DeChambeau said. “With my wedge game and how fast I can move a golf club, I’m super happy that I was able to control the distance there and get it on the green.”
On Sunday, the pin will probably be on the back right of the green. It will play about 135 to 140 yards. Players should be able to fade their tee shots into the green.
Less than five-star reviews
Fitzpatrick, who is ranked No. 8 in the Official World Golf Ranking, tried to be polite, like Englishmen are apt to do. Hovland was a little more critical after carding a 1-under 69. He is 2 under after 54 holes.
LACC’s North Course is hosting its first U.S. Open. The tournament is scheduled to return here in 2039.
“You know what, I’m not a big fan of this golf course, to be honest,” Hovland said. “I think there’s some good holes. I don’t think there’s any great holes. I think there’s a few bad holes. I think No. 9 is probably the best hole out here in my opinion.”
Fitzgerald had some of the same complaints that Koepka had on Friday: Too many blind shots and too much slope in the fairways, which causes balls to funnel to the same spots, regardless of the line.
“I just think the golf course is interesting, to be polite, I think,” Fitzpatrick said. ” There’s just too many holes for me where you’ve got blind tee shots and then you’ve got fairways that don’t hold the ball. There’s too much slope.
“Some of the tee shots, I think they’re a little bit unfair. You hit a good tee shot and end up in the rough by a foot and then you’re hacking it out. Meanwhile, someone has hit it miles offline the other way and they’ve got a shot. Yeah, not my cup of tea.”
LACC members can take solace in that Scheffler likes their course.
“I definitely like the golf course a lot,” Scheffler said. “I think it’s a very interesting place to play golf. I think some of the setup stuff has been also a little bit interesting. It can be frustrating at times with how firm the greens are and how much softer the fairways are.”
It’s only a number
Ireland’s Harrington, a three-time major champion, is 1 under after 54 holes, becoming only the fourth player at 50 years or older to be under par through three rounds of the U.S. Open, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Harrington carded a 3-under 67 in the third round, including an eagle on the par-5 eighth and two birdies on the back.
“Most of my golf now, which is the way it should always be, is about managing me,” Harrington said. “I’m not really trying to worry too much about everybody else. I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing, mainly mentally. … Physically I’m capable and I know what to do mentally, just sometimes it’s a bit of a stumbling block to get myself to do the good stuff mentally.”
Harrington, who is playing on PGA Tour Champions, would become the fifth player to finish under par in a U.S. Open after 72 holes. The others were Steve Stricker in 2017 (5 under), Julius Boros in 1973 (1 under), Raymond Floyd in 1993 (1 under) and Dutch Harrison in 1960 (1 under).
Unfamiliar name on the leaderboard
There’s a name you probably don’t recognize on the leaderboard: Japan’s Ryutaro Nagano, who is solo eighth at 4 under. After posting a 1-over 71 in the first round, he’s a combined 5 under in the past 36.
Nagano, 35, has never won on the Japan Golf Tour. The closest he came was a playoff loss in the 2021 Panasonic Open Golf Championship. He’s ranked 522nd in the world. He has played in one other major championship, missing the cut at the 2021 Open Championship. He tied for 39th in his only PGA Tour start at the 2021 Zozo Championship.
For whatever reason, Nagano’s game came together this week.
“I’m grateful that I’ve been able to play well for the last three days, and to be here is amazing,” Nagano said. “
Nagano’s favorite memory of the U.S. Open was watching Tiger Woods win at Torrey Pines in San Diego in 2008. Nagano was in high school.
If Nagano finishes in the top 10 on Sunday, he’ll earn a spot in the 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.