The U.S. Open got way more interesting Saturday, setting the stage for a dramatic Sunday. Big, big names started popping up higher on the leaderboard. A few lesser-know ones hung in and head to final round with a chance.
So many possibilities at Torrey Pines. We take a look at the big questions heading into what could be a memorable Father’s Day at the U.S. Open.
Can Rory McIlroy finally put everything together on a Sunday? If not, what stops him?
Bob Harig: Absolutely. The problem for him has mostly been he’s not been close enough on Sundays to win. Look at the majority of his top finishes in majors in recent years. Several have been him sneaking up the board on Sunday after starting the day with no chance. That said, there have been some opportunities to shoot a good score that did not transpire. For Rory, he seems confident on a course that allows him to swing freely off the tee. And it helps that he’s playing the par 5s better. He’s 5 under the last two rounds.
Michael Collins: Yes. But if there’s something that’s going to prevent the win it’ll be his putter. If he misses a couple putts inside 6 feet over his first five holes, it will become the issue that prevents him from winning. But I think he’ll make two or three 7-footers to save par. That will give him the confidence he needs to win. Just watch those first five holes. His putter will let everyone know if he’s going to win or not.
Mark Schlabach: For the first time in a long time, he’s right there in the mix and actually has a chance to win his first major championship in nearly seven years. McIlroy says he likes the setup at Torrey Pines because it gives him the freedom to swing freely. He made some big putts on Nos. 15 and 16 on Saturday, which kept him in contention. He didn’t fire at pins and cut down on mistakes in the third round with only one bogey; he had 10 in the first 36 holes. He has 14 birdies, which is as many as any player in the field, so he has a chance to go low on Sunday.
Kevin Van Valkenburg: Can he? Yes. Will he? I feel like he’s been so disappointing in these situations the past five years, I’m hesitant to believe it until he actually does it. It would be great for golf if he did break through this seven-year major drought. I think the setup at Torrey Pines works to Rory’s advantage more than any major has in many years, because it makes everyone hit long irons instead of wedges (even the bombers). Rory is probably the best long-iron player of his generation. If he doesn’t get it done, it will be the same old song. He’ll overthink everything and tighten up. Harry Diamond, his caddie, should tell him he’s not allowed to look at a scoreboard until he’s standing in the 18th fairway, deciding if he needs to go for it at the par-5 finishing hole.
Tom VanHaaren: Yes, he has a real shot at winning. He’s only two shots off the lead going into Sunday and he really hasn’t played great in the first three rounds. He is T-24 in fairways hit and T-26 in strokes gained on approach. Despite those numbers he has hit 66.67 percent of greens in regulation and is tied for the most birdies through the first three rounds. If he can give himself a shot and hit a few more fairways on Sunday, he should be right there. He seemed in control on Saturday despite a few mistakes. Given the pressure of Sunday and what the leaderboard looks like, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on top in the end.
If Bryson DeChambeau wins a second consecutive U.S. Open, what club will be the reason why? Driver? Short irons? Putter?
Harig: The putter. It is still the club that thwarts him the most when things don’t go well. He will miss some greens and need to make some putts to avoid going backward. Saturday was a good example of how driving accuracy in his case can be overrated. DeChambeau hit just 5 of 14 fairways and yet had a bogey-free round. He hit 15 of 18 greens, which is a phenomenal effort in a U.S. Open.
Collins: Putting. These greens are the key to winning this week. As fun as it is to watch Bryson hit driver, it’s his ability with the putter that will be why he wins — or loses.
Schlabach: All of the above? He’s third in shots gained from the tee, No. 19 in approach and fifth in putting. Regardless of whether you like DeChambeau and his quirky personality or not, the guy has one of the best all-around games on tour, which is why he has a chance to become only the third player in the last seven decades to win back-to-back U.S. Open titles. He wanted to dial in his driver after the first round and did. He wanted to polish his irons after the second round and did. He had a bogey-free round on Saturday, the first of his career in a major.
Van Valkenburg: His irons. Bryson has been extremely transparent about his strategy this week. Hit it really far, even if it’s off line. It really doesn’t matter if he misses fairways as long as the ball is in play. What impresses me most about him these days is how good his distance control is, even on bad days. I actually think he could win the U.S. Open without his best stuff on Sunday, just because it’s easier for him to make pars than it is everyone else in the field.
VanHaaren: I think driver has been the key to the rest of his shots. His course management has been anything but traditional all week. He has been taking angles off the tee most aren’t with the mentality of hitting it as far as he can and seeing what happens from there. That has worked and put him in contention for the lead. So, I think all of those clubs have been the reason, but he’s giving himself a shot with the driver off the tee. If he doesn’t hit it as far as he does with driver, or if he hits it into trouble, then everything else falls apart.
Can’t mention Bryson without Brooks. Is Koepka out of it after his Saturday 71 that has him at even par and 5 shots back?
Harig: Pretty much. It’s not the number of shots back as much as the number of players he has to pass. There are 13 in front of him, plus five more tied with him. He would need a lot of players to falter, coupled with a relatively low round in order to have a chance. And that seems like a lot to ask.
Collins: Yes, Brooks is done. It ain’t the amount of shots, it’s the amount of people in front of him that’s the issue. That many guys needing to all make mistakes is too much to ask even on a Sunday at the U.S Open.
Schlabach: Yeah, I can’t see him coming back now. I thought he would make a move on Saturday, but it never happened. His driver let him down on Friday. His putter was the culprit in the third round.
Van Valkenburg: I think he’s out of it, and I hope this serves as a bit of wake-up call for him. Brooks doesn’t strike me as someone who is big on introspection, but for all his trolling, the truth is, Bryson is out-working him right now. He might think Bryson is a nerd and that he’s obnoxious, but none of that matters if you don’t deliver. Bryson can win without his best stuff, but I don’t think Brooks can. Not anymore. Brooks keeps fading as soon as he climbs into contention these days, and he isn’t the kind of player who is going to make seven birdies to steal one of these.
VanHaaren: I don’t see him coming back. Especially with McIlroy, Rahm, DeChambeau, Wolff, Johnson and Morikawa ahead of him. That’s too much to overcome on Sunday at the U.S. Open. He couldn’t catch Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship in the final round, even though Mickelson was 1 over in the final round. I don’t see him doing it here, either.
How far is too back?
Harig: Four shots is not a lot, but it seems like too many when you have eight players ahead of that number. Realistically, the players in the top eight who are 2 under or better are the ones with a chance on Sunday. It would not necessarily take a big move, but Scottie Scheffler is positioned nicely for a low round after lurking for most of the week.
Collins: I think 1 under is the number. If someone at 1 under can go out and have a magical final round, then sit in the clubhouse for a while watching the others crash trying to press too hard coming down the stretch. That’s the starting number to watch for someone to steal a win Sunday.
Schlabach: It has to be 1 under, right? The low round of the tournament is 4-under 67. The setup figures to be a little bit tougher for the final round, and Sunday nerves will make it more difficult.
Van Valkenburg: I think players at even par are still in it, primarily because Henley and Hughes have never been in this position before, and Oosthuizen seems snake bit on Sundays in majors. I can make a serious case that 3 under is the true lead. I don’t think Bryson is going backward, and Rory shouldn’t back up either (though he certainly could). Mathew Wolff has nothing to lose on Sunday. He drove it horribly on Saturday yet didn’t fall out of contention. That tells me he could win this if he can just find something on the range Sunday morning.
VanHaaren: I agree, it has to be 1 under. I think the winner comes from the group of players at 2 under or better. But I picked Collin Morikawa to win it in the beginning. If there’s anyone in that 1-under group that might make a run, I’ll pick him.
Harig: I am not confident in either player. Hughes is playing in just his ninth major championship and has missed the cut in six of them. His best finish is a tie for 40th at this year’s Masters. That’s not a lot of experience in this position. Henley is a veteran player, but he’s never finished top 10 in a major. And the way he played the 18th hole the last two days — a three-putt bogey Friday, a botched approach and par on Saturday — does not inspire confidence.
Collins: I’m as confident in them as I am in myself dunking in an NBA game. I’m 5-foot-5 and weigh 257 pounds. Not saying, just saying.
Schlabach: I’ll give Henley credit for staying the course and not hurting himself too much on Saturday. He held a two-shot lead at one point and missed an opportunity to widen the gap. He hasn’t won on tour in more than four years and hasn’t done much of anything in the majors. Hughes has absolutely no business being here. The Canadian’s best finish in a major came at the most recent Masters — a tie for 40th. He had missed the cut in each of his past five starts on tour.
Van Valkenburg: This might sound off, but I have more confidence in Henley than it seems my colleagues do. Remember when he stood up to Rory and won the Honda in 2014 when Rory was at the peak of his powers? He can get this done if he drives it well. He’s one of the best iron players on tour. The U.S. Open has a history of guys like Steve Jones, Michael Campbell and Lucas Glover pulling off unlikely wins when everyone was itching to engrave a superstar’s name on the trophy. As for Hughes, I have much less confidence he can close. I just don’t think he drives it well enough to hang on.
VanHaaren: Now I can’t stop thinking about Michael trying to dunk. I’m 5-foot-8, so I’d put as much confidence in those two winning as Michael and I winning a dunk contest if we’re sticking with a dunking theme. No offense to Hughes or Henley, but history is not on their side and the pressure is just different on Sunday. With so many elite players chasing them, and only a few shots back, I just don’t see it happening. I don’t root for anyone to lose, especially if it’s life-changing, but it just doesn’t seem likely.
You could pick a score right now and sit in the clubhouse Sunday and just take your chances. What is that number?
Harig: I’ll go with 7 under. Someone will get there. If not a player currently at 5 under, then McIlroy and DeChambeau at 3 under are certainly capable of shooting 67 to get to that number. It’s never good for a player to set a target too early, but you would have to feel good about that score through 72 holes.
Collins: 5 under. I completely believe if I sat in the clubhouse all day Sunday at that number, the worst thing I’d have to do is go warm up at 6 p.m. local time for a playoff. But I doubt I’d ever need to even get dressed. And yes, I’d stay in a bathrobe all day. Maybe even wear it to the ceremony.
Schlabach: I say 6 under. If I’m McIlroy or DeChambeau come up with a 3-under 68 on Sunday, I’m feeling pretty good about my chances. They might prove me wrong, but I think Hughes and Henley are coming back to the pack instead of pulling away. Now, Louis Oosthuizen might be a problem. With an eagle on 18 on Saturday, he put himself right in the mix to win his second major. And the South African has been in this position many times before, so the pressure won’t be a problem.
Van Valkenburg: I think 7 under is probably the right number. If you get to 7 under and the leaders see it and have to sweat it out, I think you have a great chance of making a playoff.
VanHaaren: The way Oosthuizen finished his third round, I think I’d want to be at 7 under and make him go out and play a mistake-free round. I don’t know if 7 under is realistic, but watching Oosthuizen eagle the 18th hole on Saturday, and the fact that he hasn’t had a round over 71 yet this week, that’s where I’d want to be.
OK … who wins?
Harig: Bryson defends. His Winged Foot strategy is working. If he can hit a few more fairways (only 5 on Saturday), he will give himself even more birdie chances. DeChambeau hit 15 greens on Saturday, which is solid stuff.
Collins: I believe Rory will win in a playoff. I’m rooting for Louis Oosthuizen, because he’s a member at my home course and I love the attitude he’s trying to keep this week. But when Rory gets this close to the lead, he’s really tough to beat. And he’s mentally ready.
Schlabach: I’ll go with Rory. He’s still one of the most talented players in the world, and the fact he hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship is just mind-boggling to me. I think he figures out a way to get it done on his first Father’s Day as a dad.
Van Valkenburg: My heart wants Rory, but I think Bryson repeats. I kind of chuckle when I see people say Oostheuizen or Rory is “due.” There is no such thing as “due” in golf. Look, we all love their swings. We all love their sense of humor. We love Rory’s driver and Louis’ putting stroke. But if Louis had that special thing that makes some golfers ruthless closers, he’d have a bunch of majors instead of just one. If Rory could play loose and carefree like he did in his 20s, he’d do it and not talk about it. Bryson is going to wear everyone down, get into a playoff and then birdie the first hole to win, then awkwardly scream “What’s my name?” to all the Brooks Bros looking down into their cheap domestic beers — all while drinking a protein shake on the 18th green.
VanHaaren: I really want to say Rory, but I’ve talked myself into picking Oosthuizen. Maybe it’s because I’m writing this after watching him finish with an eagle, but he has battled all week and fought his way to the top of the leaderboard. I would be surprised if he falls apart on Sunday and doesn’t take advantage of the position he’s in right now, tied with two guys lacking the experience in majors that he has.