The 123rd U.S. Open Championship on The Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course has gone a little off script – at least for the traditionalists accustomed to grind-fests with few scores in the red – but that doesn’t mean the final act on Sunday will lack for drama.
The fact that 54-hole leaders Rickie Fowler and Wyndham Clark sit at 10 under par instead of 1 or 2 under has not taken away from a championship test that got a little bit stingier on Saturday when the classic George C. Thomas Jr. design was splashed in sunshine. As the day wore on, the 7,282-yard, par-70 layout continued to firm up.
Of the 12 players in the last six pairings, just three bettered par – Clark (69), 2011 champion Rory McIlroy (69) and world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler (68) – and they combined for a scoring average of 71.8. Scheffler, who is three strokes back at 7-under 203, needed a miraculous eagle 2 on No. 17 and a 20-foot birdie at 18 to post his under-par round. McIlroy, who is seeking to end a nine-year major drought, will enter the final round one stroke back (9-under 201).
In the last 24 U.S. Opens, no player who has trailed by more than four strokes entering the final round has hoisted the trophy. Only Harris English (71–204) joins the aforementioned quartet within that margin.
“I need some help at this point now, with such a poor performance today,” said perennial contender Xander Schauffele, whose third-round 73 left him five strokes back. “Just going to have to do something special, and [I’m] going to need some help from up top probably.”
A birdie machine through the first two days with a championship-record 18, Fowler cooled off on Saturday, making just three. A shocking three-putt bogey that included a lip-out from 5 feet on the final hole dropped him into a share of the lead as Clark made birdie.
The affable 34-year-old Fowler, from Murrieta, Calif., who slipped as low as No. 185 in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2022, is looking to claim his first major title after 12 career top 10s. In Round 3, he was in control of his game and emotions, stacking 12 pars – two more than he had the first two rounds – against three birdies and three bogeys.
If he wins on Sunday, Fowler would be the first player to win the championship leading or co-leading after every round since Martin Kaymer went wire-to-wire at Pinehurst in 2014. Kaymer beat Fowler and Erik Compton by eight strokes.
“Through three rounds we're in the spot that we want to be in,” said Fowler, “and tomorrow is when the tournament starts.”
Clark, who won his first PGA Tour event last month at the Wells Fargo Championship, seemingly wasn’t bothered by playing in the final pairing of a major for the first time. The 2017 Pacific-12 Conference champion (University of Oregon) and Golfweek magazine’s collegiate player of the year for 2016-17 stayed right with Fowler, a five-time PGA Tour winner, all afternoon. When Fowler holed a 69-footer for birdie from the fringe on the 518-yard, par-4 13th hole, Clark answered with a 3 of his own from 12½ feet. Only two other players birdied that hole in Round 3.
When Clark found the penalty area with his approach to the 515-yard, par-4 17th, he managed to get up and down for bogey. Then he stuffed his 170-yard approach to the 496-yard 18th hole to 6 feet to set up a birdie and a late-afternoon tee time Sunday with Fowler.
“It’s a U.S. Open and I wanted to be in the final group,” said Clark, 29, of Denver, Colo. “I'm not a huge scoreboard watcher but walking up there [on 18] I kind of knew where we were at.”
Most were expecting a final pairing of Fowler and his Bear’s Club buddy McIlroy. Easily two of the biggest fan favorites in the game, the two often play together when home in Jupiter, Fla. McIlroy, who hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship, birdied two of his first three holes, but couldn’t muster another one until the par-5 14th hole.
McIlroy has given himself plenty of chances by leading the field in greens in regulation (44 of 54) while hitting 31 of 39 fairways, good for a share of sixth.
“The golf course definitely got a little bit trickier today,” said McIlroy. “I felt like I played really smart, solid golf. [It] sort of felt somewhat stress-free out there, if you can ever call golf at a U.S. Open stress-free. Overall, pretty pleased with how today went, and feel like I’m in a good spot heading into tomorrow.”
Scheffler can never be counted out, as the Texan has not finished worse than a tie for 12th in 2023, including a win at The Players Championship and a successful title defense in the WM Phoenix Open. The 2021 Masters champion also shared second in last month’s PGA Championship.
While he doesn’t own a major, English has finished solo fourth and third in consecutive U.S. Opens (2020 and 2021). His up-and-down bogey after whiffing his third shot from gnarly greenside rough on No. 18 showed the Georgian’s intestinal fortitude.
All of which is setting up for a compelling Sunday finish in the shadows of Hollywood.
Sunday’s final round will begin at 8:23 a.m. PDT, with the final pairing of Fowler/Clark starting at 2:30 p.m. PDT. If two or more players are tied after 72 holes, a two-hole aggregate playoff would be contested on Nos. 1 and 18, and repeated hole by hole if the deadlock is not resolved.
“I handled all of it really well. I had two back-to-back bogeys [on 11 and 12], which were unfortunate. But followed it up with birdie, and then birdieing at the end I felt like I handled all the adversity, and I feel like my best round is still out there.” – Wyndham Clark on playing in the last pairing
“We have a chance tomorrow. I mentioned out there after going through the last few years, I'm not scared to fail. I've dealt with that. We're just going to go have fun, continue to try to execute, leave it all out there, see where we stand on 18.” – Rickie Fowler
“I could not see the ball go in, but there was a nice crowd there on the grandstand behind the green. I saw where it landed and I thought it would funnel out on to the green and I'd have a look for birdie and then they erupted, which is always nice when you're standing in the fairway.” – Scottie Scheffler on his hole-out for eagle on No. 17
“I feel like my game is in a great spot right now, really putting well and hitting some good shots. And I feel like I'm in the mix tomorrow, so anything can happen. I'm excited about where I'm at.” – Harris English
“Geez, probably one of the best rounds of my life. It's going to take at least 5 or 6, probably even 7 under [for me to win]. The golf course is getting tougher, but there's still lots of wedges out there. The leaders are there for a reason. They're obviously playing really good golf.” – Cam Smith (3-under 207) on his chances to win
“It did catch my mind once I was 7 under after 10 where, man, if I can keep this going, have a good finish, I might … have a chance to be really close up there on Sunday. But it was a really short thought because I still had the hardest part of the golf course right in front of me.” – Tom Kim
“These are probably the best greens we've ever putted on in a major. I'm telling you, these are just a pure bent surface which is beautiful to putt on. If you produce good greens, you're going to get good scoring.” – 2022 U.S. Senior Open champion Padraig Harrington (1-under 209)
“Thank the USGA for giving me the opportunity. It's pretty special to do this in front of your membership on the course that you work at. If you were out here this morning on the first tee, there was a pretty loud roar. Got the juices flowing a bit.” – Tom Gardner, LACC’s director of golf who was the non-competitive marker for Ryan Fox
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.