The 123rd U.S. Open Championship is down to 18 holes over the North Course at The Los Angeles Country Club (barring the need for a two-hole playoff), and the course is proving to be the sort of test that the USGA envisioned: a handful of holes that provide chances to score, and others where players find themselves either hanging on or battling to make par.
“I think it’s felt like a U.S. Open all week,” said 2011 champion Rory McIlroy, who sits alone in third place, one stroke back of Rickie Fowler and Wyndham Clark after Round 3. “The scoring was surprisingly low over the first couple of days, but the U.S. Open has definitely got its own identity, and I think that identity was pretty strong from the opening tee shot on Thursday.”
Here are 3 Things to Know for Round 4:
McIlroy last won the U.S. Open 12 years ago at Congressional, and his major-championship drought extends to 2014, when he won his third and fourth majors at age 25, the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla.
When asked after Round 3 whether his previous major victories give him an advantage (Fowler and Clark have never led or co-led after 54 holes before this week in a major), McIlroy paused before saying, “It’s been such a long time since I’ve done it. I’m going out there to try to execute a game plan, and I feel like over the last three days I’ve executed that game plan really well, and I just need to do that for one more day.”
If he is looking for a good sign, this week marks the third time that McIlroy has shot 67 or better in the opening two rounds of a major, and on each of the three previous occasions, he won. Will this be the day he breaks through after a nine-year majors drought that includes 18 top-10 finishes?
It’s not as though the championship begins on the final nine holes. In fact, the front nine of the North Course has provided most of the fireworks this week, with seven players shooting 5-under-par 30 on that side and Tom Kim posting just the fifth nine-hole score of 29 in championship history in Round 3.
The stroke average on the front is roughly 1⅓ strokes lower than the back for the week, and that margin only grew in Round 3 compared to the first two days, with almost two full strokes difference (34.97 to 36.88). The front has also accounted for nearly 300 more birdies (719 to 425), and 14 of the 18 eagles for the week.
The potential is certainly there for players who are within five or six strokes of the leaders beginning the day to make up ground early, particularly on Nos. 1, 3, 6 and 8, which have played as the four easiest holes through three days.
When George C. Thomas Jr. created the North Course, which debuted in 1928, he provided options on several holes that demonstrate his “course within a course” principle. Although some of his tee-to-green setup flexibility allowed for the possibility of a hole’s par to change, the USGA is using that flexibility to bring tees forward and combine them with more demanding hole locations that match a shorter approach club in the players’ hands.
One example on Saturday: No. 5 was shortened from the U.S. Open scorecard yardage of 480 to 455 yards, with the hole placed in a front right “shelf,” just 4 yards on the green, with 4 yards of putting surface on either side of the hole and a deep bunker in front. Despite the shortened yardage, the hole – which was the ninth-hardest hole at a 4.19 average on Friday – played as the most difficult on the course in Round 3, with a 4.51 average, just one birdie and nearly as many bogeys (30) as pars (34). Yardage was not a factor, as it played 493 yards in Round 2, 38 yards longer than on Saturday.
The hole locations for Round 4 – along with the wide variance in tee options – are very much worth noting as players plot their way around the strategic North Course.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.