Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, was poised to run away with the U.S. Open. Instead, he and the rest of the field spent a wild Saturday at Shinnecock Hills chasing runaway golf balls.
The combination of gusting winds and greens that were dry and slick as tabletops made for a brutal day and a four-way tie heading into Sunday’s final round.
Atop the leaderboard at three over par are Johnson — who shot a seven-over-par 77 — and defending champion Brooks Koepka, and the unlikely tandem of Daniel Berger and Tony Finau, who shot jaw-dropping morning rounds of 66 to emerge from irrelevance and play their way into contention for a major championship.
“I barely made the cut,” marveled Finau, who has one PGA Tour win. “Going into today, I needed something special to happen to even have an outside chance.”
The cut Friday was at eight over par. On Saturday, that score would be good for a share of 16th place.
It was the kind of day when ugly scores didn’t look half-bad.
“I didn’t feel like I played badly at all,” said Johnson, who was six over on the front nine but still had the lead to himself until he three-putted No. 18 for a bogey. “Seven over usually is a terrible score. But, I mean, with the greens the way they got this afternoon, they were very, very difficult.”
Finau and Berger, who accounted for two of the three rounds under par for the day, each had six birdies and two bogeys. Those red numbers were rare as the day wore on, the sun and wind dried the greens, and even putts that were intended to be conservative rolled well past holes without as much as a peek into the cup.
“I didn’t mean to disrespect anybody,” said Mickelson, who finished with 81, his worst-ever round in a U.S. Open. “I know it’s a two-shot penalty. At that time, I just didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over. I took the two-shot penalty and moved on.”
The conditions deteriorated to such a degree in the afternoon that the U.S. Golf Assn. conceded in an evening news conference that the course setup was unfair.
“It was a tale of two different golf courses today,” said Mike Davis, chief executive of the USGA.
“We want the U.S. Open to be tough, but we saw some examples late in the day where well-executed shots were not only not being rewarded, but in some cases penalized. And specifically, I think the one that was most troubling was the 15th green, that hole location. It worked fine most of the day, but it didn’t work fine later in the day.”
Davis said the wind speeds were higher than expected, the grass began to dry almost to the point of wilting, and there simply wasn’t enough of it to hold the shots.
“We didn’t have a situation in terms of ’04 where we had to suspend play because you couldn’t play the golf course,” he said, referring to the last time Shinnecock played host to the U.S. Open and grounds workers were frantically watering the greens between groups. “But we certainly had a condition in a few places where you’d say, `You know what, it was tougher than we wanted.’”
Davis said the grounds crew has been instructed to do what it can to slow the course for the final round, mostly by watering the surface as much as possible without negatively affecting play.
There were plenty of complaints from golfers Saturday.
“In the afternoon, when the greens get baked and with some of those pin positions — I mean, the greens aren’t running perfectly smooth in the first place,” said Henrik Stenson, who was even par for the tournament at the turn but had five bogeys on the back nine to finish two shots behind the leaders. “In the afternoon, when [the greens] get crusty and baked, it’s like glass around the hole. You can barely touch some of those putts going downhill, and could easily three- or four-putt from three, four, five feet.”
Asked about the putting surface on No. 15, Koepka said: “I don’t have anything nice to say about that green and the pin location, so I’m just not going to say it.”
Said Zach Johnson in an interview with Sky Sports: “Unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course.”
The USGA might have lost the golf course, and the tournament’s overwhelming leader. But it regained something else heading into the final day: Intrigue.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer