Unrelenting sun and sturdy winds essentially turned the greens at Shinnecock Hills into undulated hardpan, resulting in a 54-hole leaderboard that displayed not a single red number.
Dustin Johnson, the 36-hole leader – who seemed invincible in the opening two rounds, entered Saturday holding onto a four-shot lead at 4-under par. Yet, by the 6th hole Johnson’s lead had evaporated, and at the turn he was 6-over 41 – two shots back at 2-over par.
The world No. 1 appeared to have recovered and arrived at the 18th hole with a one-shot lead, but a final-hole bogey had Johnson signing for a 7-over 77 to drop into a four-way tie for the lead at 3-over par.
“I’m in a good position, in the lead tomorrow. Today’s round, I didn’t feel like I played badly at all. 7 over, you know, usually is a terrible score, but, I mean, with the greens the way they got this afternoon, I mean, they were very, very difficult,” said Johnson, who finished 10 shots worse than Friday’s second round (67).
“You know, I felt like I hit — you know, I had seven or eight putts that easily could have gone in the hole that didn’t. You know, and that’s the difference between shooting 7 over and even par.
“Even like the putt on the last hole, I hit a really good putt. It was in the hole with breaking to the right, and it kicks left, goes up the hill, and lips out. So, you know, it’s just difficult out there right now.”
Defending champion Brooks Koepka gutted out an impressive 2-over 72 amidst the afternoon carnage, and will be paired with good friend D.J. in the penultimate group.
“I’m glad I’m in the position I’m in. I feel like, you know, obviously, going off the morning was a little bit easier. Guys are spinning the balls on the greens.
“I don’t think there was this much wind. I’m not really quite sure. But it definitely got difficult.
“I’m sure it would have been nice to go out and — let’s put it this way. If they’d have shot 4 under this afternoon, it would probably have been the best round of golf anybody’s ever seen.”
Koepka was referring to Tony Finau and Daniel Berger, who started the day 11 shots down, but after posting early-morning 66s, the duo moved 44 spots up the leaderboard to secure Sunday’s final pairing of the 2018 U.S. Open.
Berger, a two-time PGA Tour winner and its top rookie in 2015, has struggled for much of the season, but a U.S. Open victory would more than offset many of the disappointments thus far.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s fun. I mean, this is why I practice and play because I want to be in this position to have a chance to win golf tournaments,” said Berger.
“It hasn’t necessarily gone my way this year, but I’ve done a lot of the right things, and it’s more about just letting it happen and not putting too much pressure on myself.
“Today I did that. I just went out there and played golf and added up the score at the end of the day, and it happened to be a good one.”
One further back at 4-over par was Justin Rose who posted a third-day 73 to sit alone in fifth, one clear of Ryder Cup partner Henrik Stenson (74).
“I love my position. I said here yesterday, if I was four back going into tomorrow, I’d love my position. Just being within the right zip code, it gives you chance tomorrow,” said Rose, who won this tournament in 2013 at Merion.
“There’s a lot of us in the hunt tomorrow, though. It’s a very condensed leaderboard. All great players as well, in and around the lead. It’s going to take a special round tomorrow, but at least you have the opportunity.”
Kiradech Aphibarnrat also took advantage of an early tee time to shoot a 2-under 68 and moved 51 positions up the board to T7, alongside Patrick Reed (71) and Jim Furyk (72).
A logjam of six players are tied for 10th at 7-over par, headlined by Ian Poulter (76), Branden Grace (72) and Tyrrell Hatton (72).
World No. 2 Justin Thomas shot a 74 and leads a group of seven players five shots back at 8-over par.
Phil Mickelson struggled to an 11-over 81 and dropped to 17-over par. Mickelson’s round was marked by an incident on the 13th hole which created a firestorm on social media.
1. Daniel Berger +3 (76-71-66)
1. Tony Finau +3 (75-72-66)
1. Dustin Johnson +3 (69-67-77)
1. Brooks Koepka +3 (75-66-72)
5. Justin Rose +4 (71-70-73)
1. Ryan Fox – 318.80 (T23)
2. Brooks Koepka – 317.80 (T1)
3. Jhonattan Vegas – 317.70 (T33)
1. Kiradech Aphibarnrat – 38/42 90% (T7)
2. Justin Rose – 36/42 86% (5)
2. Ian Poulter – 36/42 86% (T10)
2. Matthew Fitzpatrick – 36/42 86% (T16)
2. Jason Dufner – 36/42 86% (T50)
2. Calum Hill – 36/42 86% (T58)
2. Phil Mickelson – 36/42 86% (T64)
1. Brooks Koepka – 37/54 69% (T1)
2. Haotong Li – 36/54 67% (T33)
3. Matthew Fitzpatrick – 35/5465% (T16)
1. Alex Noren – 1.52 (T33)
2. Ian Poulter – 1.56 (T10)
3. Jim Furyk – 1.57 (T7)