Sunday’s final round of the 119th U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links is resembling the start of a NASCAR race.
You have a pacesetter in 54-hole leader Gary Woodland, the 35-year-old Kansas native who has never won a major nor played in the final group on Sunday. The three-time PGA Tour winner escaped a few potential disastrous holes on the second nine on Saturday to post a 2-under-par 69 for a three-round total of 11-under 202.
But there are several experienced operators ready to make a Sunday charge, including seven major champions within seven strokes of the lead.
The closest pursuer is former world No. 1 and 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, who was in Saturday’s final pairing with Woodland. Behind a gritty short game, Rose will begin the final round one shot back after a 3-under 68.
Lurking four shots behind are two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka (7-under 206), who is seeking to join Willie Anderson (1903-05) as the only players to claim the National Open three consecutive years, and Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, who is looking to join Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to have won majors at both Pebble Beach and the Old Course at St. Andrews. Oosthuizen birdied three straight holes from No. 15 to post a 1-under 70.
“Just keep doing what I'm doing,” said Koepka, who rallied from one back to win in 2017 at Erin Hills but was the 54-hole leader last year at Shinnecock Hills. “Obviously, whatever I'm doing is working. Make a couple of birdies [on Sunday], put some pressure on guys.”
Five strokes back is 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, fresh off his victory a week ago in the Canadian Open, where he shot a final-round 61.
Three more major winners – Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open at Pebble), Danny Willett (2016 Masters) and Henrik Stenson (2016 Open Championship) – are seven back at 4-under 209.
Matt Kuchar, the 1997 U.S. Amateur champion and arguably one of the best players to have never won a major, is at 5-under 208. His only top-10 finish in 16 previous U.S. Opens is a tie for sixth at Pebble Beach in 2010.
There are a couple of outliers as well. Chez Reavie (7-under 206), the 2001 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion, has never finished better than a tie for 16th in six previous U.S. Opens. Chesson Hadley, like Kuchar a former Georgia Tech standout, sits at 208. His only previous U.S. Open start resulted in a missed cut at Shinnecock Hills last year. His lone PGA Tour win since turning professional in 2010 is the 2014 Puerto Rico Open.
“I feel very comfortable on this golf course,” said Woodland, who tied for sixth in last year’s PGA Championship after playing in the final group on Saturday and penultimate group on Sunday. “I've played well on Pebble during the AT&T the last couple of times I've been here. I have a lot more shots. I've been a cutter of the golf ball a long time. [Instructor] Pete Cowen has got me comfortable working the ball both ways if I need to. And that just frees me up a little bit.”
For a third consecutive day, the gusty winds that can permeate Pebble Beach stayed away, as the marine layer kept the breezes down and the temperatures in the 50s.
Woodland certainly maintained his cool. Playing in the final group of a major for just the second time – after the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive – a composed Woodland never faltered, helped along by a couple of Houdini-like acts on Nos. 12 and 14. He holed a 33-foot chip for par on the par-3 12th and a 42-foot putt for par on the par-5 14th.
“I have a short game now I can rely on,” said Woodland. “I don't have to focus on the ball-striking. This is a golf course I don't have to pound a lot of drivers, I can play a little more conservatively, stick to my game plan. And like I said, it's nice to be where I'm at right now. But looking forward to going out and doing it one more day.”
He wasn’t the only golfer executing heroic shots. Koepka salvaged a momentum-saving par with a 33-foot putt on the 15th hole after his approach found deep rough to the left of the green. And Reavie bailed himself out of trouble early with a 51-footer for par on No. 2.
Rose might not have converted anything from long range, but he continued his mastery around the greens, punctuating his day with an up-and-down birdie on the par-5 18th hole. He’s now 11 of 13 in sand saves for the week and has played Pebble Beach’s second nine in 6 under par. He’s now in position to collect his second victory of 2019 in California: he won the Farmers Insurance Open in February at Torrey Pines, site of the 2021 U.S. Open.
“I'm in a great position going into [Sunday],” said Rose. “Had a great day with Gary. He's awesome to play with. For both of us, we are good friends. From that point of view, it's going to be a fun day. One back gives me the freedom to feel like I've got everything to gain, nothing to lose. I’m close enough that I have to build my plan, build my round of golf, be disciplined.”
Gary Woodland saw his bogey-free streak end at 34 holes with a 5 on the par-4 eighth hole on Saturday. His pprevious blemish was on No. 9 in Thursday’s opening round. He also has just two bogeys through 54 holes (No. 1 in field).
Each of the last 20 U.S. Open champions were within four strokes of the lead entering the final round.
Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion who had never bettered par in 15 previous U.S. Open rounds, made the biggest move on Saturday, posting a 4-under 67 to move into a tie for ninth.
Viktor Hovland is attempting to become the first player since 1902 to be low amateur in the U.S. Open on the same course he won the U.S. Amateur. It has happened twice: H.J. Whigham at Chicago G.C. (1897 U.S. Amateur champion; 1897 low amateur in U.S. Open, and Walter Travis at Garden City (1900 U.S. Amateur champion; 1902 low amateur in U.S. Open). The 1897 championships were held back-to-back on the same course.
Brandon Wu birdied the 18th hole for an even-par 71 and a two-stroke lead over Hovland for low-amateur honors. Wu, who helped Stanford win the NCAA title last month and will miss college graduation ceremonies on Sunday, sits at 2-under 141.
So you think it’s easy to not only qualify for the U.S. Open but make the cut? This year, four players navigated both the local and sectional stages of qualifying and are playing the weekend at Pebble Beach (Chandler Eaton, Andy Pope, Chip McDaniel and Charlie Danielson). That translates into .0004 percent of the hopefuls who attempted to qualify (4 of 8,550), not counting those who were exempt into the sectional stage or into the championship proper.
“I'm getting more and more comfortable from the situation just because I've been in the situation a lot. I've had a lot of close calls even this year in tournaments. Obviously, I put myself in position in the PGA last year. It's one of those where the game is becoming more complete, and with that comes a lot of confidence and adds up to playing well.” – Gary Woodland on being the 54-hole leader for the first time in a major
“Putting definitely has been, to coin an American phrase, the MVP for sure. I felt like the putter, with my preparation for the greens this week has been good. And I'm reading the greens really well. I'm seeing the lines. The putter is behaving.” – Justin Rose
“It's nice to see red numbers in a U.S. Open, and I think it's a little bit more exciting.” – Louis Oosthuizen
“It's definitely not a golf course or a golf tournament where you can go chasing. Even though I'm still a few off the lead, it's a wonderful opportunity for me to go out there and try to add to my major tally.” – Rory McIlroy on his mindset for Sunday being five strokes back of the 54-hole leader
“I feel good. I feel like if I can just make a few putts, I feel like I could be right there, right next to Gary [Woodland]. And it's been very close. I'm pleased how I'm playing. I'm pleased how I'm striking the ball. And I feel as confident as ever right now.” – Brooks Koepka
“I got off to an awful start, and clawed it around, but still gave myself a chance for tomorrow, which is positive. And we'll see what the weather forecast is for tomorrow. There are a lot of guys ahead of me right now.” – Tiger Woods after an even-par 71 for a 54-hole total of 213
“This is a pretty cool experience, too. I wish I could graduate with my classmates, but I think they'll understand and be cheering for me.” – Brandon Wu on missing his graduation at Stanford on Sunday to play the final round of the 119th U.S. Open.
“Really cool to make 3 there. I think Tiger did something similar in 2010, from memory, hitting that 3-wood from behind the tree. Mine wasn't as fancy as that. It was a nice little cutty 3-wood from 245 slightly to the right and [it] came off nicely. And I was telling my caddie, I quite fancy this one, it would be nice to roll this one in. The fans have been fantastic this week, and it was nice to get a cheer like that on the last green.” – Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion, on his closing eagle to post a 54-hole total of 4-under 209
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.