OAKMONT, Pa. – To paraphrase a famous line about the Masters, this U.S. Open didn’t begin until the second back nine Saturday.
The rain-delayed Oakmont Open required some players to finish their second rounds Saturday morning, then play as much of the third round as they could in the afternoon and evening. The result was a long day’s journey into twilight and a leaderboard that looked like a slot machine.
Dustin Johnson took control with a birdie on the first hole, kept it despite a shot into a concession stand on No. 2, then started leaking oil on No. 3.
The Most Impressive Physical Specimen Never to Win A Major turned a two-shot lead into a three-shot deficit in 11 holes. By the time play was suspended at 8:49 p.m. Eastern Time, Johnson was at minus-2, three shots behind leader Shane Lowry. Just as significant for Sunday at the U.S. Open, Johnson declined to run away with the competition when he had the chance.
If Lowry can’t maintain his two-shot lead over the field, there will be dozens of players within reach of the lead in what has become a strange and fascinating tournament.
He leads by two over journeyman Andrew Landry, and three shots over Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, the three best current players never to win a major. Asked whether he finally could get the monkey off his back, Garcia acted as if he were standing in front of a brick wall instead of a USGA logo. “The monkey on my back, or on my bag?” he said, miming a golf carry bag. “Nah, there’s no monkeys. That’s nonsense.”
Branden Grace, whose shot into the train tracks at Chambers Bay ended his bid to win last year’s U.S. Open, is four shots back after shooting a third-round 66. Las Vegas resident Scott Piercy is five back. Four players are six back, including Jason Day, the top-ranked player in the world.
On a long moving day, Day accelerated. He started Saturday tied for 45th and finished tied for eighth. He was 10 shots behind Landry after the first round. If he wins on Sunday, he will have made the largest comeback in the final 54 holes in U.S. Open history.
Tied with Day is Bryson DeChambeau, who is playing in his first major as a pro; Daniel Summerhays; and two-time major winner Zach Johnson.
Even defending champion Jordan Spieth, who finished at 4 over and has spent much of the tournament yelling at himself or his golf ball, thinks he still has a chance.
“I’m going to come out tomorrow and try to pull a Johnny Miller,” he said.
Johnny Miller shot a final-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Sergio’s monkey and Spieth’s Miller homage will come into play only if Lowry can’t hold his lead, and on Saturday the Irishman looked quite cool.
He finished ninth at last year’s U.S. Open and at the 2014 British Open, and last year he broke through in the States with a two-shot victory over Bubba Watson in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
“It obviously means a lot,” he said. “I beat a field of this quality already, so there’s no reason I can’t do it again tomorrow.”
Lowry admitted he watched the scoreboard, and, as a man who is unlikely to be caught in skinny jeans, he admitted he didn’t mind hearing the closing horn sound when he was finishing the 14th hole.
“I was quite aware of what was going on around me,” he said. “’I’m quite happy that we didn’t have another hole. I was getting tired towards the end. I wasn’t hitting any bad shots or anything — I was making good decisions and hitting good shots. But if I had to play another four holes, it could have been quite difficult.”
Lowry will have to play well over 21 holes and 12 or 13 hours on Sunday to win his first major. If he slips, there will be more talks of monkeys, wobbly putters and U.S. Open pressure as the pack closes in.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org