On a volatile Saturday at Torrey Pines, a handful of heavyweights moved into position to win the U.S. Open championship.
Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion and runner-up in the PGA Championship last month, poured in a 51-foot eagle putt on the 18th green to leap into a three-way tie for the lead with 36-hole co-leader Russell Henley and Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes at 5-under-par 208.
Sitting tied for fourth just two shots back are Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, who both vaulted up the leaderboard with rounds of 67 and 68, respectively.
World No. 2 Jon Rahm, the odds-on favorite, sits another shot back at 2-under with 2020 runner-up Matthew Wolff and fellow young American Scottie Scheffler. Lurking in the group tied for ninth is world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, 2020 PGA champion Collin Morikawa, and recurring U.S. Open contender Xander Schauffele.
Oosthuizen, who has finished runner-up in five majors including the 2015 U.S. Open since his victory at St. Andrews in 2010, hopes his experiences on the biggest stages will help on Sunday.
“I think I was too dumb really when I won the Open to get nervous and to know what was going on,” he said. “Look, (experience) will help a bit but I need to play well. I need to go out… there's a lot of great players up there that's got a chance of winning this, and I just need to go out and play as good as I can tomorrow.”
Henley refused to relinquish his place atop the board with a scrappy effort, four times climbing to 6-under with birdies on 1, 4, 9, and 11 only to drop back with bogeys at 2, 6, 10, and 15. But it was his par save on the par-5 18th that sent him to bed for the third consecutive night with a share of the lead. He couldn’t contain his excitement with the opportunity he’s presented.
“I mean, things always happen kind of when you least expect them a little bit with golf,” Henley said. “It's like right when you kind of stop pressing and stop searching for your game, sometimes things just come together. That doesn't mean I'm going to play great tomorrow, doesn't mean I'm going to play bad, but just got to keep doing what I'm doing.”
Hughes came into the week off the back of five consecutive missed cuts but the one-time PGA Tour winner shot 32 on the back with birdies at 11 and 18 and an eagle on 13 that booked his spot in the final pairing with Oosthuizen. He, too, could hardly contain his excitement.
“You get goosebumps thinking about it, so I know I'm going to be nervous tomorrow,” he said. “I essentially played today around the lead all day. I think I was only ever a few back the entire day, so it felt… I think it'll feel different tomorrow being in that last group, but you do the same things. You mentally tell yourself the same things, and I'll be referencing my yardage book and my notes a lot. But yeah, I'm going to try and enjoy it lots, and yeah, embrace the moment.”
McIlroy finally put together the round his been waiting for on Saturday, tying the low round of the week to get in the thick of the hunt. Saturday was 10 years since his breakout major victory in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, where he won comfortably. “I’m going to have to work a lot harder tomorrow if I want to win another one,” he said.
DeChambeau shot the only bogey-free round among the leaders Saturday, making huge par saves from trouble on 7 and 14 and while collecting three birdies despite failing to take advantage on two of the par-5s.
“You've got to be really patient out here at these majors. It's something that is not easy to do,” said the aggressive DeChambeau. “My first few goes at majors, I was not successful or anywhere near successful, and I feel like I'm starting to understand major championship golf and how to play it and how to go about managing my game, my attitude, and just my patience level. If I can continue to do that tomorrow, I think I'll have a good chance.”
While stars like Oosthuizen, McIlroy, DeChambeau, Johnson, and Morikawa moved into contention with under-par rounds, a few hopefuls moved out.
Richard Bland, the 48-year-old Englishman who played such beautiful golf to take a share of the 36-hole lead, couldn’t make any birdies on Saturday and made five bogeys in the last eight holes to shoot 77 and fall out of the top 20.
“I struggled with my irons all day,” said Bland. “I drove the ball pretty good, which is what you need to do. I just couldn't take advantage from there, and I didn't really give myself any decent looks for birdies. That's the U.S. Open. Some days it's just going to beat you up all day, and today was my day.”
Brooks Koepka, who won consecutive championship in 2017-18, was at 2-under before a couple of bogeys coming in dropped him to even par for the tournament with 13 players ahead of him he’d need to reel in to have a chance.
Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters champion, started the round in third place and shot 77.