BROOKLINE, Mass. – Back in the late 1800s, it was horse racing, not golf, that was king at The Country Club. Decades before the first 18-hole layout was constructed around this historic property just prior to the turn of the century, a half-mile racetrack called Clyde Park sat on terrain that would eventually curve around the closing hole, in the shadows of the light-yellow clubhouse.
The final remnants of the track were grassed over following the 1968 U.S. Junior, and this week the land between Nos. 1 and 18, where the front stretch’s grandstand once stood, is home to a giant merchandise tent and outdoor food court.
But shades of Clyde Park remain. As the 122nd U.S. Open reaches its final furlong, there is no breakaway horse, but rather a bunched group of pro-golf thoroughbreds barreling toward what’s likely to be a photo finish.
Leading the pack, if only by a neck, are two betting favorites: Will Zalatoris, the brilliant ball-striker who at age 25 already owns five top-10 finishes in majors, including a playoff loss to Justin Thomas at last month’s PGA Championship; and Matt Fitzpatrick, the 27-year-old Englishman who won the U.S. Amateur nine years ago at The Country Club and now finds himself in the final Sunday pairing for a second straight major.
Jon Rahm, the reigning U.S. Open champion, is just a shot back after a wild final stretch that included a closing double bogey. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler is within two, as is crowd favorite Keegan Bradley. And only a few strokes behind are last week’s winner, Rory McIlroy, and rising star Sam Burns.
“I'm in a tie for the lead right now,” Zalatoris said, “but I don't feel like I'm holding a lead and trying to protect it by any means.”
He’s just trying not to let go of the reins.
The Country Club hadn’t hosted a U.S. Open since 1988, but it has certainly made up for lost time. Players have raved about the options this layout has provided – especially off the tee – and the precision it has demanded. But a deft and unfamiliar design that includes plenty of blind shots has turned these competitors uncomfortable while whipping winds, which flipped from previous days, and dipping temperatures have ramped up the treachery.
It's not borderline unfair like some accused Shinnecock Hills of being in 2018, when the 54-hole lead was 3 over, but a 73.5 scoring average and just seven under-par rounds are nothing to laugh at.
“You had to be switched on with the way you were hitting it, where you were missing it,” said Fitzpatrick, who despite a capping bogey posted his second 68 of the week, “and I think that was why it was a great challenge.”
As expected with a U.S. Open test, the course rewarded great shots and punished average ones. No players exemplified that better than Rahm and Scheffler. Rahm caught fire late with three birdies in four holes, starting at the par-5 14th and including a 30-foot bomb at the par-4 15th. But his drive at the last found the left fairway bunker and he hit the lip with his approach shot, his ball deflecting back into the trap.
“I think I got a little bit too cute with the shot,” Rahm said.
His next swing came up short, in the front greenside bunker, and from a fried-egg lie he couldn’t get up and down. The closing double knocked him from leader to chaser, but Rahm, still wearing last year’s championship belt proudly, kept that newfound perspective of a major champion.
“I'm very content, I’m not going to lie,” Rahm said. “It's infuriating in a sense to finish that way with how good I played those holes, but like I kept telling myself, if on the 14th hole you tell me you can post 1-over par and not play the last five holes, I would have ran to the clubhouse because of how difficult it was playing. … I have 18 holes, and I'm only one shot back. That's the important thing.”
Scheffler jumped out to a two-shot lead after holing out from 101 yards at the par-5 eighth hole. Yet this year’s green-jacket winner double-bogeyed the short par-3 11th hole, which is being used in this tournament for the first time since 1913, and followed with three straight bogeys to derail a potential runaway.
“I just kept trying to pretend that what was happening wasn't happening,” Scheffler said. “Eventually I was able to steady the ship. For me, that stuff is going to happen at U.S. Opens. The golf course is just hard. The conditions are hard. The scores are high. All I was going to do is just try and hang in there. That was my only goal.”
For momentum purposes, Scheffler rolled in a 15-footer for a closing par and third-round 71. Bradley birdied three of his final six holes and received a Sunday-victory-lap-like reception from the crowd on No. 18. McIlroy played his last 12 holes in even par to card 73.
They each did their part to keep their winning hopes alive. According to Justin Ray of the Twenty-First Group, the past 23 U.S. Open champions were all at or within four shots of the lead heading into Sunday.
If that trend holds, even Nick Hardy, in solo 10th at even par, is still in it. So, too, is Joel Dahmen, who shared the 36-hole lead with Collin Morikawa before the two slowed pace and combined to shoot 11 over. Dahmen, who didn't make a birdie but parred his last 11 holes on Saturday, is 1 under, but Morikawa squandered his title hopes with a 77, one of 10 scores of 7 over or worse on the round.
“I knew it was going to be hard," Dahmen said. “I didn't know it was going to be that hard. The wind flipped, made some of the easy holes really hard.”
Added McIlroy: “It was one of the toughest days on a golf course I've had in a long time.”
An outlier, Zalatoris fired the round of the day, a 67 that was marked by just one bogey and a ton of discipline. Having also teed it up at The Country Club in 2013, Zalatoris stated that he’s considered the course the toughest he’s played in competition.
“I mean, we didn't aim at a single flag,” Zalatoris claimed, “even with some wedges.”
With similar conditions expected for the final round, Zalatoris will likely employ a similar game plan. But then again, if he – or anybody for that matter – is going to pull away from this pack and win the U.S. Open, it's going to take a breakneck, bite-down-on-the-bit finish.
“The U.S. Open is very taxing, mentally and physically,” Scheffler said. “I think that's all part of what makes this tournament so fun. You're going to get tested all different kinds of ways, whether it be physically, mentally, whatever it is. This golf tournament is going to test you.
“That's why I show up here.”
And that’s why, on this old racing ground, we’re likely to be talking about Sunday’s finish for centuries to come.