One day after competitors in the 118th U.S. Open moaned that the setup of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club had crossed the line from tough to unfair, the U.S. Golf Association watered all the greens Saturday night and Sunday morning and reduced green speeds.
Suddenly, a birdie barrage broke out and no one took advantage more than Tommy Fleetwood.
The 27-year-old Englishman started the day six strokes off the pace, but toured the front side in 32 to join the trophy hunt.
“I never thought I was out of it,” Fleetwood said. “I just needed to get off to a good start.”
He did just that and then made four consecutive birdies starting at No. 12 to flirt with a U.S. Open scoring record.
Fleetwood drew his approach from 197 yards at the 18th hole to inside 5 feet, but he missed the putt on the right for 62.
“Can you shoot 63 and be disappointed?” Fox TV commentator Paul Azinger wondered. “I think he might be.”
It didn’t take long to find out the answer. When Irish journalist Shane O’Donoghue informed Fleetwood that he had settled for shooting the sixth 63 in Open history, Fleetwood sighed and said, “Yeah, but I wanted 62.”
Instead, he signed for a 72-hole total of 2-over 282, and had to play the waiting game to see if major winners Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson or Patrick Reed would be able to tie or beat him as a four-horse race emerged.
Koepka held a one-stroke lead through 11 holes.
“When it’s hard like that, you’re guaranteed you’re going to get a superstar winner,” said Scotland’s Russell Knox. “You absolutely cannot fake it out here. The guys who are playing the best, that are the most disciplined to hit it in the right spots, the most prepared to navigate it around the course is going to win.”
Brooks Koepka drew three circles on his scorecard on the front nine. He made birdies on three of the first five holes to scratch back to level par and temporarily build a two-stroke lead. Koepka, 28, who missed the Masters due to a left wrist injury, is attempting to become just the sixth player to win back-to-back Opens and the first player to do so since Curtis Strange in 1988-89. He birdied the second, third and fifth holes, but made a bogey at the sixth to tour the front nine in 33. At the 10th, he stuffed his approach to 6 feet and canned the putt, but needed to drill a 13-foot bogey putt at 11 to maintain the lead.
“There’s nobody more confident here than me,” Koepka said on Friday when he surged into contention with a 66.
Masters champion Patrick Reed, 27, is gunning to join an exclusive group of pros that have won the first two legs of the Grand Slam in the same year and he came out charging. He birdied five of his first seven holes and tied for the lead at 1 over when Koepka made his first bogey of the day at the sixth. But Reed made a bogey at the ninth for 31 on his opening nine and dropped strokes at 11 and 12. Three bogeys in a row dropped him to 4 over through 12.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson, who skied to a 77 in the third round, was hanging around at 3 over and two back after offsetting birdies at the fifth and eighth holes with bogeys at the par-3 seventh and 11th holes. Johnson, winner of the 2016 U.S. Open, is seeking to become the first player to win a PGA Tour event (FedEx St. Jude Classic) and the U.S. Open the following week.
Rickie Fowler proved that there are low scores to be had at Shinnecock Hills in the final round. One day after shooting 84, Fowler rebounded with a 5-under 65, the lowest round of the championship until Fleetwood bettered him by two strokes.
“That’s the golf course I enjoy playing,” said Fowler, who improved his score by 19 strokes from the day before.
Phil Mickelson, who was paired with Fowler, rolled in a 5-foot par putt at 13, one day after swatting a moving ball on the same green and being penalised two strokes, and raised his arms in triumph.
Matt Parziale, a 31-year-old fireman from Mass, and the reigning US Mid-Amateur champion, tied for low amateur honours at 16-over 296 with 20-year-old Louisiana State University senior Luis Gagne. Fleetwood made back-to-back birdies at Nos. 2 and 3 and 6 and 7 before making his lone bogey of the day at the ninth. He heated up on the back nine beginning with a birdie at 12 and then wedged to 3 feet at No. 13 and poured in putts of 21 feet at No. 14 and 32 feet at No. 15. He made par at the final three holes for 7-under 63. As beautifully as he played, the softer conditions on Sunday and easier hole locations may mean it’s all for naught. Unless, of course, the words of Raymond Floyd, the 1986 U.S. Open champion here, still ring true.
“There are more bogeys in the last nine holes at Shinnecock,” Floyd said, “than any other course in God’s creation.”
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