A bunched leaderboard at the start of the final round doesn’t necessarily mean a tight finish at the end, but because The Country Club has become progressively more challenging as the week has progressed, we’re guessing that sweaty palms and hard-fought pars are in the offing today in the 122nd U.S. Open.
A playoff could even be likely, as extra holes have decided all three previous U.S. Open Championships at The Country Club.
The history of majors indicates that it’s possible for a player five or six strokes behind to emerge with the title. In fact, we just watched Justin Thomas rally from seven strokes back to capture the PGA Championship last month at Southern Hills in Tulsa. But on this course and in these conditions, we tend to think unless someone gets extremely hot with the putter, the winner of the U.S. Open Trophy is likely to come from a small group of contenders.
Here are the top nine players on the leaderboard and how their chances stack up for the final 18 holes on this chilly Father’s Day in New England. Why just the top nine? According to 21st Group’s Justin Ray, each of the last 31 U.S. Open champions stood no worse than T-8 through 54 holes.
Will Zalatoris (-4): The 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur champion has yet to win a PGA Tour event, but he has performed splendidly in major events, notching five top-10 finishes in eight starts. He leads the field in proximity to the hole this week, which is not a surprise for one of the Tour's best ball strikers. How the putter holds up is the key, as always, and it hurt him down the stretch at the PGA.
Matt Fitzpatrick (-4): No one has a bigger comfort level at The Country Club than Fitzpatrick, who won the U.S. Amateur here in 2013 and is vying to become the first foreign-born player to win both the U.S. Open and Amateur. He has not played the early holes well (4 over par on Nos. 1-4), so getting off to a good start will be a key. He also had a chance at the PGA, where he played in the final pairing.
Jon Rahm (-3): The defending champion is driving it great, which is why he’ll be dangerous today. He’s admitted that his iron game has been a bit off, so that will be worth watching as the pressure ramps up. Few have his toughness. He is a classic U.S. Open grinder who can figure out how to save pars.
Keegan Bradley (-2): As feel-good stories go, this is probably at the top today as the Vermont native goes for his second major victory, 11 years after his first. It will be an emotional day playing in front of his hometown fans, so you have to wonder if the emotions of the day will become too much or buoy him to the title.
Scottie Scheffler (-2): The reigning Masters champion and 2013 U.S. Junior Am champ looked like he might run away with the championship early in the third round when he got to 6 under, but struggled coming home, playing Nos. 11-14 at 5 over par. His short game and putting, which were strengths at Augusta National, have been off this week, but with four wins already this year, he knows how to finish.
Adam Hadwin (-2): The first-round leader keeps hanging around, mainly because he’s gained nearly four strokes on the field around the greens, ranked second overall. That usually doesn’t hold up in the final round of a major. He has just one tour win and is without a top-10 finish in a major in 19 starts.
Sam Burns (-1): Other than Scheffler, no player has been hotter than the Louisiana native, who owns three tour wins this season, including a playoff victory at Colonial over Scheffler just three Sundays ago. Major success has been lacking, as his best previous finish was T-20 at this year’s PGA. Another thing to keep an eye on: he is in contention despite losing 1.21 strokes off the tee.
Rory McIlroy (-1): No player has won the U.S. Open the week immediately following a PGA Tour victory, but the 2011 U.S. Open champion has seemingly been near the top of every leader board for the past several months. He survived an off day with putter in the third round to shoot 73 and stay in the mix. He may be three back to start the day, but usually when he makes birdies, he makes them in bunches.
Joel Dahmen (-1): Ranked 130th in the world, the Washington native can be classified as the long shot of this group. He leads the field in fairways hit as well as in scoring when missing the fairway. That could work. Playing in just his third U.S. Open, he is the least experienced of the group. That could hurt.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.