SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Justin Rose, a thoughtful and astute fellow, believes that golf, as in life, is more fun on the edge.
“You know what, I think when everything’s in balance, it’s kind of boring,” he said on the eve of the U.S. Open.
Nothing about Moving Day at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was boring. Dustin Johnson’s four-stroke lead vanished in the span of 90 minutes. Phil Mickelson sent the golf world in a tizzy, first with his slap-shot antics on the 18th green, and then with his comments afterward to the press. Mickelson got dinged two shots for hitting a ball in motion. Fans took to social media to roast him for unsporting conduct. Not the birthday barbecue he expected on his 48th birthday.
Early start boosted Finau, Berger
On a day when some players criticized the U.S. Golf Association for sending Shinny over the edge, two guys who teed off more than four hours before the final group posted sparkling rounds of 66 – and even that was controversial.
Tony Finau and Daniel Berger, who began the day in a tie for 45th, are two of the most unlikely players to occupy the final pairing of a major. Not because of talent, but because of timing. Only three players broke par on Saturday, and they all teed off before 11 a.m.
“Not necessarily criticizing the setup and how it played in the afternoon,” said Rickie Fowler, whose goal late in the day was to simply break 80, “but when it’s that big an advantage playing in the morning versus the afternoon, I think it takes away from the work that the guys have done in the first two days.”
Said co-leader Brooks Koepka: “Let’s put it this way. If they’d have shot 4 under this afternoon, it would probably have been the best round of golf anybody’s ever seen.”
Koepka (72) and Johnson (77) join Finau and Berger at 3-over 213, one shot ahead of Rose and two ahead of Henrik Stenson. This marks only the third time in U.S. Open history that four players have held a share of the lead, the previous two coming in 1973 and 2015.
“I think they lost this golf course today,” said Stenson, “certainly on the back nine that we played.”
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said the strength of the wind caught officials off-guard. It was a tough test, Davis said, probably too tough this afternoon.
“We didn’t plan for that,” he said. “We didn’t want it.”
Jim Furyk, who at 48 years old finds himself three shots back, said if this were a regular PGA Tour event, hole locations would have been moved off of shelves and placed more toward the center of the greens, trying to get guys around in a fast-paced time.
“It’s the U.S. Open, a major championship,” said Furyk, “and that’s just not part of the equation.”
Friends Koepka, Johnson paired on Sunday
The penultimate group features a friendly pair of past U.S. Open champions, in Koepka and Johnson. The chiseled power players compete with the same level-headed temperament.
“We’re good buddies,” said Johnson, “but tomorrow when we tee off … we’ll be friends after the round, not during.”
Not surprisingly Johnson was fairly upbeat about his 77 and didn’t rail on the setup, calling only a couple of hole locations dicey. The World No. 1 rarely complains.
Rose hit one green on the front nine but scrambled like a short order cook, making the turn in even par. The 2013 U.S. Open champion grinded out a 3-over 73 on a day his iron play abandoned him.
“I haven’t seen a golf course change that quickly,” Rose said. “I was expecting it to be like this tomorrow.”
As Stenson noted, it’s not unusual for players and fans to end up in conversations about whether or not a U.S. Open setup crossed the line. Many thought the USGA might be extra cautious given disaster that took place here in 2004.
“I mean, the greens aren’t running perfectly smooth in the first place,” said Stenson, “but then in the afternoon, when they get crusty and baked, it’s like glass around the hole. You can barely touch some of the putts going downhill, and you could easily three or four-putt from three, four, five feet.”
Eighteen players sit within five shots of the lead. Rose said he and his caddie walked off the golf course absolutely shell-shocked.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Rose said. “We’ve all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week.”