ERIN, Wis. – The consensus opinion after two days in America’s dairyland was that the congestion that defined the first two days at the U.S. Open would only be cleared by an increasingly difficult golf course.
As has been the case all week at the build-it-and-they-will-come venue nothing could have been further from the truth.
Instead of a return to the norm, to a time when when par is the goal and bogeys can feel like moral victories, Saturday’s action turned out to be more of the same with another barrage of low scoring and a championship record round that did nothing to break the gridlock.
Justin Thomas, who began Day 3 five strokes off the pace, became the first player to post a 9-under card in America’s national championship, breaking the record set by Johnny Miller at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Thomas’ 63, which included two bogeys, moved him two strokes clear of the field at 11 under par on a course that has been transformed into the Greater Milwaukee Open by plenty of rain and winds that have yet to reach anything more than a gentle breeze.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Erin Hills was supposed to be a bomber’s golf course where only a handful of players had a chance to win, where disaster awaited on the weekend and, our personal favorite, where the USGA was poised to put the tough back into the test.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Even at 7,818 yards, nearly 4 ½ miles, the kids are having their way, with five players joining Thomas with double-digit under-par totals on Saturday and more than half the remaining field, 42 of 68, lingering on the red side of par.
“It doesn't matter how long the course is. Give us good weather and good greens, we're going to shoot good scores,” said Thomas, who added his third-round 63 to the 59 he shot earlier this year at the Sony Open.
Whether this week’s display is good for golf is a debate for another day, and probably another golf course, but there is no more room for doubt when it comes to Erin Hills; without an assist from Mother Nature the game’s best can make a pitch-and-putt out of even the longest layouts.
For three days players have been bracing for the USGA’s worse, reciprocity for record low scoring, but instead it was Thomas’ brilliance that seemed to provide a measure of clarity, at least for a few glorious hours.
Before the final group had even started their day they were joined by a threesome of front-runners – bringing the dance card to seven leaders and seven players tied for second place – and for the majority of the afternoon no fewer than a half dozen contenders moved in and out of the lead.
Thomas broke the congestion when he rolled in his 8-footer for eagle at the last to move two clear of the field, only to watch his historic handiwork fall short to a 5-foot-7 southpaw who by most accounts had no chance to contend at Endless Hills.
Brian Harman retook the lead with birdies at Nos. 14 and 15, salvaged a bogey at the 17th hole and finished at 12 under par, a shot clear of Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood.
All told, eight players are within five strokes of the lead, which given the volatile nature of this week’s outing is a statistical dead heat. With not a single major champion inside the top 16 through three laps, the biggest question going into Sunday Funday is how far back is too far back?
“It just depends on the weather. Someone could get out early and shoot a low score. Justin did it today. It's out there, for sure. There's no telling how low,” said Harman, who posted his second 67 of the week on Saturday. “I could not be leading the golf tournament by the time I tee off tomorrow. That's a very real possibility.”
Given the historic nature of this week’s scoring – consider that from 1895 to 2016, just a single player finished at 11 under or better through 54 holes at the U.S. Open – maybe the more esoteric question is how many birdies are too many birdies?
For three days, the best and brightest have enjoyed a respite from the normal grind, but make no mistake, the majority of players who will set out on Sunday with visions of a trophy ceremony in their heads would like nothing more than a U.S. Open to break out for the final 18.
“I would definitely like to see it dry out a little bit. Make the lines a little tighter just as far as off the tee and into some greens where you have to hit your spots just a little bit more,” said Rickie Fowler, who birdied three of his last five holes to finish at 10 under par. “It makes it to where you have to be just a little bit more precise.”
Maybe the real U.S. Open will finally make a cameo on Sunday when winds are expected to reach 15 mph about the time the final groups take the field, but then nothing else has gone to plan at the 117th edition.
Unless the USGA backs some tees up to Lambeau Field and hides a couple of pins in that healthy fescue, it seems more likely that the final round will be more of the same – with plenty of low scores, wild lead changes and more uncertainty right up until the bitter end.