Noren paints  putting masterpiece, McIlroy grinds his way back into contention

"It's not going to be all plain sailing in this tournament,” accepts Rory 
Noren paints  putting masterpiece, McIlroy grinds his way back into contention

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, lines up a putt on the fifth green at the US Open Saturday. He shot a 68 to lie at one over par, six back of leader Alex Noren

With only fans sneaking peeks over the fences, you could practically hear USGA officials and Winged Foot members Russell Crowe-ing as the third round of the U.S. Open played out.

Are you not entertained?

As a breezy, cool morning morphed into an idyllic fall afternoon, A.W. Tillinghast’s West Course delivered everything you could possibly want out of a US Open. 

Bombers bombing. Grinders grinding. Scramblers scrambling. Putters putting. 

Leaders faltered while fearless youngsters charged. Winged Foot tested every part of these players’ games and those who passed made it look easy at times and those who failed looked miserable.

While Matthew Wolff somehow made the Foot look a pitch-and-putt by shooting 5-under 30 on the front, Rory McIlroy steadily played his way back to 1-over par and into contention on an eventful Saturday in Mamaroneck, New York.

Which makes his Friday 76 stand out even more wedged between a 67 and 68.

McIlroy experienced the misery Winged Foot can offer on Friday, shooting 6-over that left him in no mood to talk. On Saturday, however, McIlroy ground out a sterling 68 – getting off to a clean start and then holding it together with a series of huge par saves coming home. A bogey at the 10th hole snapped a streak of 14 consecutive holes of par or better but he steadied himself and turned in a 2-under 68 that pushed him back inside the top 10.

“Within six going into tomorrow, that’s not a lot on this golf course,” McIlroy said, noting the number of strokes he was behind co-leaders Wolff and Patrick Reed at the time he finished his round.

“It doesn't take much around here. Someone gets off to a decent start, maybe 1- or 2-under through five and then the leader goes the other way, 1- or 2-over through five, and all of a sudden you're right in the thick of things. We'll see what happens. No matter where I am at the end of the day, I feel like I've got a pretty good shot.” 

McIlroy’s bogey on the par-3 10th proved to be his only blemish in his last 23 holes. His tee shot nestled in the rough awkwardly above the deepest bunker on the course. Standing in the bunker, he chopped it out to about 10 feet below the hole but missed the par putt.

He bounced back with his third birdie of the day on the 12th, and the rest of the back nine was largely a clinic in game management and huge par saves with his wedge and his putter.

The way he recovered from a 12-hole stretch Friday where he went 7-over kept McIlroy from kicking himself too much over the lapse that left him chasing.

“I felt like I finished the round well yesterday,” he said. “I was sort of hemorrhaging after like 12 or 13 holes, and then to just par my way in – 14 through 18, so five in a row – just to get it in the clubhouse, sort of regroup. And then I sort of started the same way today, I parred the first five, first six holes, made a birdie on 7, made another birdie on 9, so played a really nice stretch of holes there from the 14th last night to the ninth today.

“You're going to have stretches in US Opens where you're going to make bogeys and you're going to make mistakes, but if you can back it up with stretches of golf like I showed there, that's what you have to do. It's not going to be all plain sailing in this tournament.” 

Before the wind laid down and the leaders had a chance to attack, the round of the day came from an unlikely source – Sweden’s Alex Noren (who must have been screaming from his sofa all afternoon at how easy Winged Foot played for the leaders after he had to fight through its worst).

Noren hasn’t won since the 2018 French Open and has never won in America. Ranked as high as No. 9 in the world after a torrid second half of 2016 when he won four times on the European Tour in a four-month span, the Swede’s world standing took a precipitous tumble in 2020 to 125th after missing consecutive cuts at the Rocket Mortgage and Memorial events.

Since that low mark, however, Noren has posted three top-10 finishes and a tie for 22nd at the PGA Championship in his last five PGA Tour starts coming into the U.S. Open.

On Saturday, Noren painted a masterpiece with his putter on the sloping Winged Foot greens despite playing through the cool and breezy morning after making the cut on the number. While scores were soaring all around him, Noren made back-to-back birdies on 6 and 7 and maintained his under-par round the rest of the way with a lone birdie on No. 8.

He made 6 straight putts to finish his round, saving pars from 13, 25, 21 and 9 feet while draining birdie putts of 14 and 3 feet on Nos. 15 and 18 to post the round of the day and get in the clubhouse at 3-over before the leaders had even started.

“On the back, my putter was the best it's ever been,” Noren said. “Starting out, it felt like it was going to be the toughest day ever on a golf course, with pretty strong winds on the first like six, seven holes.

Then it got a little bit easier, but the pins are still tricked up. I putted my life out.” 

Shane Lowry’s morning 77 illustrated how good Noren’s round was in the early conditions. Lowry started off with a bogey and triple bogey on the first two holes. Then after getting two back with a pair of birdies, he made double on 14 and another triple on 17 as he played bunker pool around the green.

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