SAN DIEGO – The eagle putts looked familiar for a Saturday at Torrey Pines in June, even with Tiger Woods nowhere in sight.
Mackenzie Hughes watched his 60-foot eagle putt from the back of the green to the front on the par-5 13th slide into the cup. Louis Oosthuizen could only hope his 50-foot eagle putt on the 18th found the center of the cup, and it kissed off the pin and disappeared.
Woods made eagle putts from one end of the green to the other on the 13th and 18th holes in 2008 that set the stage for a Sunday filled with anticipation.
Suddenly, this U.S. Open has that familiar feel.
A major that for two days had the sleepy, chill vibe of San Diego now has an urgency for Oosthuizen and Rory McIlroy trying to end long droughts, hope for newcomers like Hughes and Russell Henley, a half-dozen other possibilities that include Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm.
“It’s a golf course where anything can happen,” said Oosthuizen, in the mix at a major for the second straight time. “It’s just a tough, old-fashioned golf course. You’re going to have never. You’re going to feel it. It’s about how you’re going to handle it.”
Hughes added a final birdie for a 3-under-par 68 and was the first to get to 5-under 208. Oosthuizen made a 30-foot birdie putt on the 16th and ended his round of 70 with the 50-foot eagle on the 18th to join him. They were tied with Russell Henley, who had a two-shot lead early on the back nine and appeared to be hanging on for dear life at the end. He went from the bunker to the rough to the bunker on the easiest hole at Torrey Pines and had to make an 8-foot par putt for a 71.
McIlroy (67) and DeChambeau (68) were two shots behind.
McIlroy has gone seven years without a major, a drought accentuated by rarely even having decent chances. DeChambeau can get the last laugh in his beef with Brooks Koepka by joining him as a back-to-back U.S. Open champion.
“I thought like two 68s over the weekend from where I was after Friday was going to have a good chance,” said McIlroy, who started the third round six shots behind. “I’ve done the first part of that job. Now it’s up to me tomorrow to go out and try to play a similar round of golf.”
Woods is recovering from his February car crash that badly injured his legs and is not back at Torrey Pines. In his absence, the broadcast used every opportunity to relive memories of his two eagles that gave him the 54-hole lead.
It took two players to do that this time, but it was equally spectacular.
“I know Tiger’s was further right, but halfway there, I loved it,” Hughes said. “The charge that goes through your body when the ball goes in the hole and the crowd erupts is why we play. It gives me goosebumps now thinking about it.”
And he’ll have plenty of nerves Sunday playing in the final group with Oosthuizen, who has had five runner-up finishes in the majors – two in playoffs – since winning the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews.
Henley holed a bunker shot on the par-3 11th for birdie for a two-shot lead and made a great par save from the cabbage behind he 12th green. But he showed signs of cracking over the last hour, dropping shots on the 15th and having to escape with par on No. 18.
Thirteen players remained under par going into the final round. Eight players were separated by three shots on a tough course that might not be as accessible as it was Saturday, when all three par 5s were set up to be reachable in two.
McIlroy did his best work to save bogey. He ran off three birdies in four holes to start the back nine, only to pull his tee shot into a ravine. He took a penalty drop instead of going into the ravine – a smart decision considering television showed a large rattlesnake in the area – and limited the damage to a bogey.
A birdie on the 18th for a 67, matching the low score of the week, gave him a chance to win a major for the first time since the 2014 PGA Championship.
“This is the only tournament in the world where you fist-pump a bogey,” McIlroy said. “Only losing one there was a big deal, and getting it up-and-down out of the bunker on 16 and making that birdie on 18 just to get that shot back that I lost, really big.”
DeChambeau played it big, too, going with driver just about everywhere and missing some fairways by such a wide margin that he had good lies in fan-trampled grass.
It led to his first time in 67 rounds at the majors without a bogey on his card, and his 68 gave him a chance to join Koepka and Curtis Strange as the only back-to-back Open winners in the past 50 years.
“You’ve got to be really patient out here at these majors,” DeChambeau said. “It’s something that is not easy to do. I feel like I’m starting to understand major championship golf and how to play it and how to go about managing my game, my attitude and just my patience level. If I can continue to do that tomorrow, I think I’ll have a good chance.”
Koepka, meanwhile, was among those who lost a good opportunity. He shot 71 and was only five shots behind, but with 13 players ahead of him.
Rahm, slowed by a double bogey on No. 14 and not nearly enough birdies, had a 72 and was in the group at 2-under 211 along with Scottie Scheffler (70) and Matthew Wolff (73).
Dustin Johnson shot a 68 and was among those at 1-under 212, four behind and very much in the game in this major and on this golf course.
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