A Viewer’s Notebook: Guide to Round 3 at U.S. Open

US Open-Round 1-Erin Hills Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

A Viewer’s Notebook: Guide to Round 3 at U.S. Open

PGA Tour

A Viewer’s Notebook: Guide to Round 3 at U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. – Saturday’s third round is your proverbial “moving day,” when players jockey in a stress-free manner to position themselves for Sunday’s finale. Here’s what to watch for on a par-72 Erin Hills layout that will measure 7,788 yards Saturday – around 50 yards shorter than the first two days:

  • 1. Changing of the guard: Watch these players carefully, from Brooks Koepka and Brian Harman to Harris English and Brendan Steele (my pick all week). They are the future of men’s professional golf. No one among the top-18 starting out Saturday has ever won a major. Meanwhile, we’re watching the first U.S. Open since 1993 without either Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. And the top-three ranked players in the world – Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day – all missed the cut. Out with the old; in with the new.
  • 2. Soft course, low scores: Just as the course was starting to dry out and speed up, it got hit with 9/10ths of an inch of rain Saturday morning. That yields a slower layout that’s easier, if though it’s playing a little longer. The field averaged 299 yards off the tee the first two days. The players making the cut will lose a little bit of yardage on the weekend through softer ground and less roll. But they’ll benefit from fairways that play as if wider because the ball will slow down before heading into the rough. And the greens will be considerably more receptive than they were in rounds one and two. So even though green speeds will start the day in the range of 13 on the Stimpmeter as they have all week, they will hold more moisture and thus will accept more shots. That means low scores. Someone will shoot a 64. Maybe even lower.
  • 3. Infernal sixth hole: Two days running, at 252/249 yards, this downwind par 3 has proven the most elusive at Erin Hills. Players are hitting it in regulation only 42.8 percent of the time, compared to 64.9 percent for all greens at Erin Hills. It’s tied (with the par-3 fourth hole) for the hardest on the course in relation to par, averaging a score of 3.273. The hole has also produced the fewest birdies of any out there: only 16 through two rounds. That’s because it’s hard to get the tee shot close to the hole. Saturday’s middle-right hole location, 239 yards from the tee, will prove no exception, as the shot plays straight downwind to a putting surface whose entire back half tips away from the approach.
  • 4. Drivable 15th hole: They’ve moved up the tee on this par-4 to 288 yards and will allow the players to decide whether they want to play for the middle-left hole location or lay back. There’s a minefield of a fairway fronting the green, but with plenty of room for a smart, conservative lay-up shot with a middle iron. The fun comes when they unsheathe a longer club. The plateau green has a lot of slope left to right, but just enough of a flatter spot around today’s hole that a fairway wood hit high and soft can hold the surface. A driver will come in too low and hot to hold the green. It’ll be fascinating to see if caution prevails over boldness.
  • 5. Illogical 17th: Oddly, this 523-yard par 4 has been the toughest hole all week in relation to average scoring: 4.283. For all the talk about the 137 brutal bunkers at Erin Hills, this is the only unbunkered hole, and where the driving distance (downwind) has been the longest of any hole on the course: 320.7 yards. The field is hitting this green in regulation only 52.4 percent of the time, compared to 64.9 percent for all holes on the course. That makes it the second most elusive green of any of the par 4s or par 5s at Erin Hills; only the third hole is harder to hit (47.9 percent). What’s all the trouble, then? A green built perfectly at grade that falls away, offering no containment. Downwind approaches have little to stop them. Lots of folks are hitting it long here, over the green and having to pitch back.

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