ARDMORE, Pa. – Perhaps it was just another classic psychological ploy from Phil Mickelson. But before the third round of the U.S. Open, Lefty told a captive TV audience: “Today’s the day to go out and get it.”
Well, not quite.
Sure, Rickie Fowler matched the low round of the week Saturday with a 3-under 67, vaulting 28 spots and moving into solo ninth. But he was one of only six players to shoot in the 60s during the third round at Merion, which is only beginning to resemble the firm-and-fast layout that the USGA originally preferred.
The blue blazers may claim that they’re unconcerned with the winning score and aren’t trying to protect par, but the leaderboard shows differently. Only Mickelson, at 1-under 209, is under par after 54 holes.
How can that be, at a course that measured only 6,933 yards Saturday?
“If this is a regular Tour event, we’d be doing better,” Padraig Harrington said. “The U.S. Open just seems to intimidate you. Players are hitting shots they wouldn’t normally hit because the U.S. Open makes them afraid of making mistakes.”
Only five players in the 156-player field broke par in Round 1, when the conditions were the most benign, with rain-softened greens and little breeze. Six players shot sub-70 scores in the second round, and 2-under 138 led after 36 holes.
“It’s been tough,” said Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, who won at The Olympic Club last year at 1-over 281. “It’s been exactly what I figured it would be – very challenging, very penal. Pins are maybe a little harder than I thought they would be. But I think score-wise, they’re dialing it in perfectly.”
Said Luke Donald: “I think I read somewhere this morning that they were going to set the course up today where it would be gettable. I think that it probably was an April Fool’s joke. There were not many easy pins. There were a few pins that even in practice I wouldn’t have dreamed they would put them there. But it’s the U.S. Open, and that’s kind of what you expect.”
The tricky hole locations, oftentimes tucked on tops of subtle ridges, have been one of the USGA’s main defenses, along with the punishing, 6-inch rough.
Tiger Woods, who has shot rounds of 73-70-76, said this has “most definitely” been as penal of a U.S. Open setup as he has ever faced.
“Because of the pins, I think,” he said. “The long holes are playing really long and short holes obviously are short, but the thing is that the pins out there, what they’re giving us are really tough.”
The seventh hole, he said, was a step and a half over the top of a ridge. The hole location on No. 8 was on the downslope. On the 17th, the hole was cut in the middle of the green, but it was located on a swale and in between two knobs. Oh, yeah, and it’s 253 yards.
“If you put the ball in the right spots you’ve got uphill putts and you can be really aggressive,” Woods said.
But that has proved a difficult task for most everyone this week, including the world’s top player.