SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The 2018 U.S. Open limped into the weekend after Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth missed the cut and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson galloped out ahead of the field. Shinnecock Hills, we were told, produces world-class drama and championship-worthy leaderboards. We (sort of) got the latter, but the former was in short supply heading into Saturday's third round.
Enter ... Phil Mickelson.
Leave it to somebody who is currently 17 over and 14 strokes back of the lead to infuse this tournament with the juice it desperately needed, but he did that whenon the 13th hole of his third round. It certainly won't affect who takes home the trophy on Sunday night, but it seemed to kick-start what could turn out to be one of the wilder weekends we've seen in recent major history.
I was in media dining when I saw what Mickelson did with pals Kevin Van Valkenburg and Sean Martin. As soon as we saw the replay, we all more or less sprinted back to our computers to watch the captivating aftermath of one of the more bizarre decisions and explanations I've ever witnessed.
"It's certainly not meant [to show disrespect to the tournament]," Mickelson said. "It's meant to take advantage of the rules as best as you can. In that situation, I was just going back and forth. I would gladly take the two shots over continuing that display."
We can debate whether what Mickelson did violated the spirit of the game for weeks (and we probably will), but at this point, who cares? He uncoiled a meek tournament and released the floodgates on the day.
Shortly after Mickelson stymied our media scrum up by the scoring tent by taking 20 minutes to ostensibly count up all the strokes he took on that now notorious hole, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau got in the house with a pair of 66s that moved them up to 3 over on the week.
They were still seven back of leader Dustin Johnson. Nobody paid much attention at the time.
Now, they're playing in the final pairing on Sunday afternoon for the U.S. Open. Even Finau took the long view after his 66 pushed him into the conversation near the top the leaderboard.
"I think more than six is going to be too far back," he said, "but I do think you can make five or six shots up on this golf course? Yeah."
He would make all of them up over the next five hours.
Finau and Berger are now tied with Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson at 3 over as the tournament spills into Sunday. That's because Koepka shot a 2-over 72, which was one of the 10 best round of the day on Sunday.
As far as Johnson goes, he posted a 7-over 77 to tumble from leading alone at 4 under to a four-way tie at 3 over.
Johnson, who called it "for sure" the best 77 he's ever shot, coughed up the lead before Mickelson came out of the scoring tent (it seemed) as he doubled the second and played the first nine holes in 41. He went from 4 under to 2 over in a hurry. He rebounded a bit on the second nine with a 1-over 36, but the damage had been done.
"I'm in a good position, in the lead tomorrow," said Johnson. "Today's round, I didn't feel like I played badly at all -- 7 over, you know, usually is a terrible score, but ... with the greens the way they got this afternoon, I mean, they were very, very difficult.
"I had six or seven putts today that I could have easily putted right off the green."
Welcome to the U.S. Open, everyone!
Johnson certainly wasn't the only one who struggled on a day when players burned about a cooked Shinnecock Hills. Here's a look at the the 10 players in the final five pairings on Saturday and what they all shot.
- Dustin Johnson (77)
- Scott Piercy (79)
- Charley Hoffman (77)
- Tommy Fleetwood (78)
- Justin Rose (73)
- Henrik Stenson (74)
- Brooks Koepka (72)
- Ian Poulter (76)
- Rickie Fowler (84)
- Russell Henley (77)
That's a combined 57 over for the last 10 guys on the course. There were a total of eight (!) rounds of 80 or higher. The course average was just over 75 on Saturday, which is less than what it was on Thursday, but you also removed most of the amateurs and the poorer players from the field after the cut. Also, it became clear as the day went on that guys like Finau and Berger, who teed off in the morning, were not playing the same track as D.J. and Koepka later in the day.
The most double bogeys/worse in any event on the PGA TOUR this season is 296 at the Honda Classic. So far this week at Shinnecock Hills, the field has made 361 doubles/worse.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 16, 2018
The 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills (where no player broke par in the final round) produced just 335.
So ... was it wheels off for the USGA or just another tough day at a proper U.S. Open? There were differing opinions, but the consensus seemed to be what Justin Rose, who shot 3-over 73, said after his round.
"I'm going to answer it diplomatically because I've never seen a golf course change that quickly," said Rose. "I was saying to the guys out there, from yesterday afternoon, I played late, and it was calm and obviously from the rain previous in the day, we were struggling to get putts to the hole yesterday afternoon.
"I didn't know that Shinnecock had SubAir. So, you know, I've never seen a course change so quick."
Jim Furyk, who is T7 after a 2-over 72, agreed with Rose.
"The golf course transformed today from hole 1 to hole 18," said Furyk. "It was a different golf course on the back nine and really just became kind of a who could survive and get through the day."
Some might call that a proper U.S. Open. I call it complete and utter madness, which is fantastic. Not everyone felt that way, though. Ian Poulter (76) and Rafa Cabrera Bello (76) were not pleased with how the course looked.
Painful finish with a 7 at the last that ruins a pretty decent day. Regardless, it was not a fair test of golf. Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. @USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course.A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course— Rafa Cabrera Bello (@RCabreraBello) June 16, 2018
Here's my take on this. Every week on the PGA Tour is the same week. A bunch of guys double digits under par who are tested in the same way I'm tested when I help my 5-year-old with her math problems. Do I want this carnage every week? Of course not, but the indignant nature of the event and predictable responses from the best players alive are like manna from heaven for those of us looking for interesting stories.
Narratives are rarely formed other than from the tension created when two colossal entities rub up against one another. In this case, the USGA's hands on an all-time classic course and a group of the best ball-strikers on the planet.
But even the USGA admitted it went a bit far on Saturday.
"We want the U.S. Open to be tough," said CEO Mike Davis during an interview on Fox. "We want it to be a complete test. But there is no doubt -- if you look at how this morning played versus this afternoon -- it was a tale of two golf courses. No doubt, we would admit there were some aspects of this setup that went too far in the sense that well-executed shots were not only not rewarded but penalized. We don't want that. ...
"Frankly, we just missed it with the wind. It blew harder than we thought it was going to blow, and the greens got fast. I think the firmness was OK, but the speed of those was too much for the winds we had, and those greens just shrink."
So I expect a slightly less difficult course on Sunday, but that's like saying I expect that Thomas isn't as long off the tee as McIlroy. The wind is the wild card, though. What if it whips like it did on Thursday? It wasn't exactly gusty on Saturday. It could certainly howl on Sunday, which would be fitting. We could legitimately see 5 over win the event.
My Saturday came to an end watching Koepka pour in a 61-footer for par on the 14th hole and emit a "[bleep] yes" punctuated with a fist pump. I watched him and Ian Poulter come home, and that duo was like chum in the waters pairing for a jingoistic New York crowd after 12 hours of booze. Brooks and his pecs. Poulter and his history with American crowds. Fans rejected Poulter approach shots. He gestured at them. The perfect end to a day of bedlam following two benign rounds on Thursday and Friday. As colleague Brendan Porath said as we walked in, "The content gods are still undefeated."
Now on Sunday, we'll get a champion. I have no idea who it's going to be, only that the course will likely remain the star. I know we've gotten some truly absurd U.S. Open Sundays in the last few years. D.J. and Jordan Spieth at Chambers Bay. The USGA penalty stroke at Oakmont. I'm not sure anything here can top either those or what transpired on Saturday (as the content gods chuckle).
All the facets were tested on Saturday, the mind most of all. Sunday will be a battle of wills, maybe even souls. A piece of property that must sort out a worthy, historic champion to slide into its overflowing history books. A field that must mentally steel itself for one more dance with a devil. A tip top of a leaderboard teeming with some of the best swingers of the club, maybe ever.
So what did we learn from it all on Saturday? What did we learn from Mickelson's penalty and Shinnecock's clap back and 757 strokes from the final 10 players on the course? Justin Rose summed it up perfectly on Saturday after his tough, well-deserved round of 73.
"Be careful what you wish for," said Rose.
"We've all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week."