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US Open players find meaner, tougher Pinehurst No. 2

With a 67, Rickie Fowler was one of only two players to break 70 in the third round of the US Open.

ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS

With a 67, Rickie Fowler was one of only two players to break 70 in the third round of the US Open.

PINEHURST, N.C. — Blame Martin Kaymer for preventing anyone from making a serious run at him by posting a really low third-round number. Listening to some of the biggest names giving chase, that was all but impossible on Saturday, considering the way the US Golf Association set up Pinehurst No. 2.

Kaymer’s 65-65 start bought him a six-shot lead. But it also meant that the course conditions for the third round would be flexing a lot more muscle.

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“I knew it was going to be set up tough with the scores the first few days. They pretty much tipped us out on every hole except for one or two, maybe,” said Webb Simpson. “It was really difficult, much more difficult than the first two days.”

Justin Rose, the defending US Open champion, knew the course was playing tough when he finished his round and was informed his even-par 70 matched the low score of the day to that point; Rose was in the 22d group of the day, meaning 41 players had finished before him.

Phil Mickelson also noticed that something was missing when he finished his third-round 72. There had been no low scores from an early starter, an early indicator of the severity of the test. But Mickelson wasn’t critical of the setup; nobody was. When you combine a hard golf course with challenging pin locations, low scores are going to be rare.

Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton had the day’s best, shooting 3-under 67s and combining for 10 birdies and an eagle. They were the exceptions, the only two players to break 70, after 36 scores were in the 60s the first two rounds.

“I tell you what, it was a golf course of 18 of the toughest pins I’ve ever seen,” said Kenny Perry, who shot 74. “It was probably the hardest setup I’ve ever experienced in a major championship. You had to be spot-on with your irons. I was 7 over after seven [holes] today and I hadn’t hit it that poorly.”

All 18 holes weren’t cut near the edge of greens. It just seemed that way, and it forced players who like to be aggressive by sending approach shots at flagsticks to play away from them. Too risky.

“I kept waiting. ‘Well, I can’t get to this one, I’ll get to maybe the next hole. Can’t get to this one, I’ll get to the next hole.’ Finally, we got to the 18th and I’m like, ‘I can get to the pin,’ ” said Mickelson, who still didn’t make birdie there. “Pins were very difficult. It was a tough day to try to go low.”

Only a few did, and Rose and Mickelson were OK with that. They wished it was them, obviously, but in this tournament, everything is difficult.

“It’s tough, and that’s why it’s the US Open,” Rose said. “But there are still plenty of guys under par [there were six after three rounds]. I won it last year with [1 over], and I won by two shots. If it’s a PGA Tour event, people would probably be whining that it was too difficult. I think good shots are still getting rewarded. I think that’s what the USGA is all about.”

Said Mickelson, a six-time runner-up in this tournament who was tied for 30th at 5 over, his quest for an elusive US Open effectively on hold for another year, “Given the way the first two days played, I think that you want to have a little bit more of a sterner test. If I play well [Sunday], if I hit it better and make some putts, I think I can shoot 4 or 5 under, end around even, finish second again.”

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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