Saturday on the PGA Tour traditionally is called “moving day,” and the third round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills lived up to that moniker. Second-round leader Dustin Johnson moved backward in a hurry, losing a four-stroke lead and falling temporarily to third place after going 6 over par in the first eight holes. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau moved up the leader board in a hurry, taking advantage of mid-morning tee times to shoot a pair of 4-under-par 66s.
But the third round of the 118th U.S. Open will be remembered most famously for Phil Mickelson’s decision to purposely hit a moving ball to prevent it from rolling far off the 13th green, accepting a two-stroke penalty and a 10 on the par-4. He described the course conditions as “goofy,” but Zach Johnson moved the needle of blame to point at the USGA, saying, “Unfortunately, they’ve lost the course.”
When the golf balls finally stopped rolling on Shinnecock’s treacherously glassy greens, Dustin Johnson had regained the lead, but only as part of a four-way tie with Berger, Finau and defending champion Brooks Koepka at 3-over-par 213. Johnson called his 7-over-par round the best 77 of his life, but it was a testament to the dramatically shifting conditions that Berger and Finau started the third round 11 shots back but will go out in the last pairing on Sunday.
Justin Rose is one stroke back in fifth at 73-214 and Henrik Stenson is sixth at 74-215. There is a three-way tie for seventh at 216 that includes Kiradech Aphibarnrat (68), Patrick Reed (71) and former Open champ Jim Furyk (72). But the third round also produced eight scores of 80 or higher, including Rickie Fowler (83) and Mickelson (81).
“I didn’t feel like I played badly at all,” Johnson said. “You know, 7 over usually is a terrible score, but with the greens the way they got this afternoon, they were very, very difficult . . . I had six or seven putts today that I could have easily putted off the green.”
In fact, Scott Piercy twice putted off the green at No. 4 and No. 15. The latter par-4 was the toughest on the course with an average score of 4.627.
When the carnage became evident as steady 15-mph winds combined with sunny skies and 80-degree temperatures to bake the course to a fine crust, Zach Johnson spoke with Britain’s Sky Sports about the dramatic change in course conditions. “It’s pretty much gone,” said Johnson, who had a 72-218 for a 16th-place tie. “In my opinion, [Shinnecock Hills is] certainly one of the best venues in golf. Unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course.”
When Berger finished just after 2 p.m. before the final six groups went off, it was clear the course was going to be impossible in the afternoon. “If someone shoots 4 under this afternoon, it’s more like 8 under,” he said. “I would say in 18 holes I played today, I don’t think there was one gettable pin . . . Some of these pins are three [paces] off the edges, where you hit one three feet past the hole and it’s going 40 yards away from the green.”
That’s what was in danger of happening when Mickelson stroked a downhill bogey putt that went past the 13th hole and started rolling downhill. He hustled to the ball and hit it toward the hole with his sixth stroke. It hit the cup but went four feet past. He took two putts from there for an 8 and was assessed a two-stroke penalty for a 10.
Mickelson admitted he did it on purpose. “I could still be out there potentially,” he said. “I took two shots and moved on and got to play the next hole.”
USGA CEO Mike Davis and senior managing director John Bodenhamer defended their decision to not disqualify Mickelson. “Intent does not come into it,” Bodenhamer said. “That’s just the way the rule is — that’s the way we operate.” Mickelson spoke with Davis later Saturday and said, according to Davis, “I don’t want to play in this championship if I should have been disqualified.” Davis assured him the rule had been applied properly.
Davis admitted the USGA didn’t anticipate high winds but insisted the situation was not as bad as in 2004, when play in the final round at Shinnecock was halted so several greens could be watered. Asked what remedial measures the USGA might take, Davis said, “The message is loud and clear. We must slow the course down and we will. That means more water applied.’’
With 29 players within six shots of the lead, it could be quite a horse race. “Just being within the right zip code, it gives you a chance,’’ Rose said. “There’s a lot of us in the hunt. It’s going to take a special round, but at least you have the opportunity.”