BROOKLINE, Mass. — The U.S. Open usually waits until the final day of its 72-hole crucible to toy with the world’s best golfers. But perhaps in tribute to the venerable history of this year’s host, vexing conditions — blustery winds, thick rough and fast greens — began to crush the wills and sap the souls of the players 24 hours early at the Country Club outside Boston.
With an under-par score a rarity, the top of Saturday’s third round leaderboard was overhauled frequently. In the end, a handful of this year’s hottest golfers remained in contention, joined by some lesser-known names to set up what figures to be an entertaining final-round slugfest against a golf course that one of the co-leaders, Will Zalatoris, called “an absolute beast.”
Zalatoris’s determined round of 67, the lowest on Saturday, left him four-under par for the championship, tied with Matthew Fitzpatrick of England, who shot a two-under par 68. Jon Rahm, the defending U.S. Open champion, squandered a late lead in the round to fall one stroke behind Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick.
Rahm had rallied from a stumbling start in his first 13 holes to make three birdies from the 14th to the 17th holes. That moved him to five-under par for the championship.
But Rahm’s drive from the 18th tee dribbled into a bunker on the left side of the fairway. Rahm’s first attempt to clear the bunker’s high lip failed, and his ball rolled back into the sand. His next shot landed in the easy-to-find 18th hole front bunker. The combination of mistakes brought a messy end to Rahm’s round: a double bogey that dropped him into third place.
Afterward, Rahm said he misjudged how deep his golf ball had been in the sand, in part because it was getting dark.
“I had a 9-iron in hand, that’s plenty to get over that lip,” he said. “Maybe I was trying to get too cute — looking for another birdie.
“But it doesn’t really matter much,” Rahm added. “I’m content where I am and happy with how I played.”
Three golfers were tied for fourth at two-under par, including Keegan Bradley, a Vermont native who was roundly cheered by the New England crowd as he walked up the 18th fairway on Saturday. Adam Hadwin of Canada, ranked 105th in the men’s world golf rankings, shot an even par 70 to tie Bradley. Scottie Scheffler, the reigning Masters champion, joined the group after a chaotic, inconsistent round.
Zalatoris was one of the few who rarely struggled Saturday, with four birdies and only one bogey. Even when he badly sliced his last tee shot of the day 35 yards to the right of the 18th fairway, he landed in a corridor between a grandstand and another temporary structure.
Though 224 yards away from the hole, he had enough of an opening to lace a precise long iron into the famed, mammoth bunker that protects the 18th green. From there, Zalatoris splashed a spinning, gutsy shot from the sand and then sank a six-foot par-saving putt.
Although Zalatoris is just 25, he is playing in his ninth major golf championship and has already contended for a legacy-defining title multiple times. Last month, he lost the P.G.A. Championship playoff against Justin Thomas, and he finished second at the 2021 Masters Tournament. He also finished tied for sixth at this year’s Masters and at the 2020 U.S. Open.
The narrow defeats in majors have not demoralized Zalatoris.
“I know I’m going to get one,” he said after this year’s P.G.A. Championship. “It’s just a matter of time.”
But Zalatoris knows the battle against the Country Club’s devilish, decades-old challenges will not be won, only survived.
“The golf course takes so much discipline and patience,” he said on Saturday evening. “That was the hardest golf course that I’ve ever played. It’s just so easy to compound mistakes out here. Of course, you can do that in major championships in general, but especially this one.”
Zalatoris paused briefly, nodded his head, then repeated: “Especially this one.”
Matching Zalatoris with a strong back nine was Fitzpatrick, who won the 2013 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club. Fitzpatrick, who was tied for second entering the fourth round of last month’s P.G.A. Championship, bogeyed his first hole Saturday but shot three-under for the rest of his round.
Fitzpatrick, who is 27 and ranked 18th worldwide, also found himself in the sprawling bunker in front of the 18th green late in the third round. He had a more difficult lie and had to settle for bogey.
With about two hours left in the third round, it appeared that Scheffler, ranked No. 1, was going to take a commanding lead into the final round. Thanks to an eagle from 102 yards on the par-5 eighth hole, Scheffler was three-under par through 10 holes and six-under par for the tournament.
But Scheffler’s tee shot on the short, downhill par-3 11th hole flew over the green into a hazard. A clunky chip and another dicey pitch that trundled 25 feet downhill past the hole led to a double bogey. Two flubbed chips on the next hole cost Scheffler another stroke to par. Improbably, that became the first of three consecutive bogeys that saw Scheffler tumble from his perch at the top of the leaderboard.
Only two golfers in the field who played in last week’s inaugural LIV Golf event made the cut to qualify for this weekend’s final two rounds. Dustin Johnson shot a one-over par 71 on Saturday and is two-over par for the tournament. Richard Bland shot a 72 Saturday and is four-over for the championship.
The other 11 LIV series golfers who went home after the opening two rounds were a combined 83-over par, the futility highlighted by Phil Mickelson’s 11-over-par finish, although Louis Oosthuizen’s six-over par was unsightly as well.
While Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed have yet to play a LIV Golf event, they have committed to the series. Both have been steadily declining in the world rankings and their performances this week will not reverse that trend. DeChambeau shot 76 on Saturday and is now eight-over for the competition. Reed shot 75 and is six-over for the tournament.