Harman leads, but it's a U.S. Wide Open

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Brian Harman has sat at 12-under-par before.

Not in a U.S. Open.

Tommy Fleetwood has chased titles before.

Not in a U.S. Open.

Rickie Fowler has made splash after splash in golf.

Not in a U.S. Open.

Sunday brings the final round of the 117th United States Open.

One of the 68 players remaining will win it – or have it handed to him – either in regulation or in a Monday playoff.

Open Sunday is different than Masters Sunday or British Open Sunday or PGA Sunday or any other Sunday. Emotions bubble up and need to be controlled. The little things – lining up a one-footer, say – suddenly take on importance. No stroke is guaranteed. Every stroke matters with the oldest open championship in American golf on offer.

This Open Sunday is really different. The birdie barrage on Erin Hills in Erin, Wis., continued on Saturday, with Justin Thomas pouring in putt after putt en route to a 9-under-par 63, the latter number tying the low for any of the four majors, and fifth in a U.S. Open, and the former setting a new standard. Thomas made nine birdies and eagled the 18th hole, and with two bogeys on his care, still snapped the single-round under-par mark of 8-under set by Johnny Miller en route to victory at par-71 Oakmont in 1973.

Thomas played more than two hours before the final twosome of Harman and Paul Casey, and gave them a reason to watch the scoreboard. He finished tied with Fleetwood, the European Tour standout, and Brooks Koepka for second at 11-under 205, a stroke behind Harman, whose 5-under 67 should have been better, but for a bold play at the last that resulted in a mere par.

“Twelve under, I’d have about a 10-shot lead in most opens,” Harman said.

He’s not kidding. This Open’s phenomenally low scores have come about thanks to fairways wider than a CinemaScope screen and rain-soaked greens that are fast but holding. Pros drool at such conditions.

Harman, the first of the record 42 players under par through 54 holes, thinks the gravy train ends Sunday morning.

“The wind is going to come out of the north, it’s going to blow, and the scores could be a good deal higher,” Harman predicted. “I’ve got a good plan for this course. I played it in a couple of different wind conditions.”

Thomas, decked out in pink pants, played it incandescently well, making birdies on the first two holes and darting up the leader board like a squirrel seeking the top branch in a tree. But he was more tickled by the par created by a 6-iron at the par-4 third.

“That ball is way above my feet, I had 204 in and off the left wind,” Thomas said. “I just pured the 6-iron right at it. Something about that shot just calmed me, and made me very comfortable for the day.”

It climaxed with a 310-yard 3-wood – honestly – that finished four feet from the cup at the last. Eagle and 63.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the rain last night,” Thomas said.

Perhaps, but, much like Miller’s 63 after a rainy Saturday night at Oakmont, nobody else shot 63 on Saturday. The next lowest score was Patrick Reed’s 65, which jumped him into a tie for seventh.

There are 13 players from Harman at 204 to the quartet at 209 that includes Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker. Notably, Rickie Fowler sits at 10-under 206 after a 68, while Si Woo Kim is a stroke behind Fowler after his own 68. On a day when the field average was almost precisely par – 72.015 – one needed to be in the 60s to make himself known.

Tradition says the winner comes from those within five strokes entering the final round, but tradition also says the winner is at 3-over and bleeding. This feel-good Open feels different. It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see the first 62 in a major, especially if someone like Sergio Garcia (tied for 17th at 4-under 212) gets rolling. But guys like Jordan Spieth (tied for 59th at 4-over 220 after a 76) are just too far back.

“I had 15 looks at birdie today and all of them were actual makable putts, and I only made one of them,” Spieth said. “It just looked like I was putting at half a cup. Sometimes it looks like I’m putting to two cups.”

Whoever wins on Sunday, the 35,000 on hand are expected to raise a cup.

Around the Open

For all the low numbers, no player has scored three rounds in the 60s this week. ... Steve Stricker shot 69 and is tied for 30th at 2-under 214. ... Stephan Jaeger, winner of last week’s Rust-Oleum Championship at Ivanhoe, is at 2-over 218 after scoring 74 and outplaying fellow competitor Spieth by two strokes. ... Haotong Li finished with a thud, a quadruple-bogey 9 on the 18th, and is last at 10-over 226.

Tim Cronin

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