To put a wild first three rounds of the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills into perspective, Justin Thomas began Saturday at 2 under par, shot the fifth 63 in championship history and trails by one stroke entering Sunday’s final round.
That precarious top spot belongs to Brian Harman, 30, of Sea Island, Ga., who fashioned a 5-under-par 67 for a 54-hole total of 12-under 204. Harman is vying to become the championship’s first left-handed champion and the fourth U.S. Junior Amateur winner to hoist the U.S. Open Trophy, joining Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.
But he has little margin for error.
Not with eight others, including Thomas and 18-hole leader Rickie Fowler, sitting within four strokes of the lead. Not with the longest course in U.S. Open history – it measured 7,818 yards on Saturday – thus far providing optimal scoring conditions.
Devoid of gusty winds for a third consecutive day and playing soft due to nearly an inch of overnight rainfall, Erin Hills yielded a third-round record 32 under-par rounds on Saturday, surpassing the 26 posted six years ago at Congressional Country Club. With 122 sub-par scores so far, the championship mark of 124 (1990 at Medinah Country Club) is virtually assured of being shattered.
Harman and Thomas, who will tee off in Sunday’s final pairing at 2:54 p.m. CDT, weren’t the only ones attacking the vulnerable 11-year-old layout. Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks Koepka, part of the quartet who shared the 36-hole lead (with Paul Casey and Harman), shot 4-under 68s to join Thomas at 11-under 205.
Starting nearly four hours before the leaders teed off, Patrick Reed produced the fourth 65 of the week to move into tie for seventh at 8-under 208 with Russell Henley (67) and Charley Hoffman (68).
Fowler (68-206) and Si Woo Kim (68-207), the winner of this year’s Players Championship, are alone in fifth and sixth, respectively.
Depending on the weather – and the forecast is calling for winds between 15 and 25 mph by 1 p.m. – Sunday’s final round has the potential to produce high drama.
But it would be hard to top Thomas’ nine-birdie, one-eagle performance from Saturday, which surpassed Miller’s 8-under effort in 1973 as the lowest round in relation to par in U.S. Open history. Miller came from six strokes back in the final round to shoot his 63 and win the championship.
Thomas would like to become the third golfer to win the U.S. Open shooting a 63. Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus opened the 1980 championship at Baltusrol Golf Club with 63s, with Nicklaus eventually holding off Isao Aoki to win his fourth and last Open. Vijay Singh posted a second-round 63 in 2003 at Olympia Fields, but faded as Jim Furyk won.
The round likely sparked plenty of dinner fodder for Thomas and Fowler, who are sharing a rented house this week.
“Wasn't exactly seeing that,” said Fowler of the 9-under score, “but I'm looking forward to hearing about that when I get back to the house.”
Thomas will be glad to discuss his 299-yard, 3-wood approach to the par-5 18th green that stopped 8 feet from the flagstick. A loud roar emanated from the grandstand when he converted the 63-clinching putt. The lone hiccups came in the form of bogeys on Nos. 4 and 10. He recovered quickly, knocking his 166-yard, 9-iron approach from the fescue to 9 feet on the 12th hole to set up a birdie.
Thomas is no stranger to going low, as his opening-round 59 in January’s Sony Open in Hawaii can attest. Ensuing rounds of 64-65-65 gave the Goshen, Ky., native a 27-under winning total of 257.
“You’ve got to have the right guy who is not going to get shook and stay in the moment,” said Jonathan Randolph, his fellow competitor on Saturday. “And he did a great job of staying in the moment, shot after shot. I was impressed.”
Making only his third U.S. Open start, the 24-year-old Thomas feels the timing is right for a first major championship.
“I’m just so excited to give myself a great chance to win this golf tournament,” said Thomas, the runner-up in the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur and a member of the victorious 2013 USA Walker Cup Team. “I feel like my game has been good enough to compete in the majors this year.
“I don’t know what I’m going to feel tonight, if I’m going to sleep well. I’m sure I won’t sleep in [on Sunday]. I usually don’t. I know I’m going to be nervous, but it’s a good nervous. That’s why I play: to get myself in this position.”
The rest of the contenders likely will feel similar emotions. Nobody within six strokes of the lead owns a major title. Harman, in fact, missed the cut in all four majors in 2015. This is the 26-year-old Fleetwood’s second made cut in eight major starts – he tied for 27th in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay – while Koepka, 27, owns three top 10s, including a tie for fourth in last year’s PGA Championship and in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, the same championship in which Fowler was the runner-up.
“Well, it would change my life, I know that,” said Fleetwood, of England, vying to become the fifth European to win since 2010. “But, no, I've pictured winning the U.S. Open a lot of times before. Doing it all night is not going to help and not make any difference. It's just concentrate on each day as it comes.”
They are all trying to continue a trend of first-time major champions, a streak of six that dates to the 2015 PGA Championship.
If they are frightened by the big stage, none have shown it through three rounds. When Harman missed just his fifth fairway of the championship on the par-4 17th hole on Saturday, he coolly chopped out of the fescue and wedged his third from 91 yards to 3 feet to save par. Fleetwood could have folded on the 18th hole when he faced a difficult uphill chip on his fifth shot. But he managed to make bogey when a much worse score was possible. He will play in Sunday’s penultimate pairing (2:46 p.m.) with Koepka for the second consecutive round.
Harman came into this championship not far removed from winning his second PGA Tour title at the Wells Fargo Championship in early May. That victory not only moved him inside the top 60 of the Official World Golf Ranking, earning him a U.S. Open exemption, it provided confidence going into the year’s second major.
“Obviously, I have no idea what tomorrow holds, but I’m more motivated by the way that I’m striking the ball,” said Harman. “It’s the best I’ve struck the ball in a long time. And my short game is pretty good. I’ve been putting it pretty good. So I’m excited about all those things.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.