BROOKLINE — As formulas go, Coca-Cola has one that is more secretive and likely would be considered to produce a richer cash flow than the one the USGA employs for its national championship.
But if your passion is for great golf and superb sports entertainment, tip your cap to the show that is in progress at The Country Club. The 122nd US Open will not only head into Sunday’s final round with players who are ranked Nos. 1 (Scottie Scheffler), 2 (Jon Rahm), and 3 (Rory McIlroy) in the world order and very much in contention, but also with players ranked 14th (Will Zalatoris) and 18th (Matt Fitzpatrick) in the lead.
Oh, for good measure, toss in No. 9, Sam Burns, who has only been roaring along in the PGA Tour’s passing lane all year, and the always popular hometown hero story (No. 47 Keegan Bradley, who was born in Vermont and played his high school golf 30 miles from TCC, in Hopkinton) and you have the makings of a scintillating competition upon one of the world’s greatest golf stages.
You also have further validation for the way the folks at the USGA have been overseeing this national championship because, give them their due, it’s been brilliantly consistent.
How so? This competition saw 25 players post sub-par scores Thursday, but only 4 under led. There were 23 players under par after Friday’s second round, but 5 under set the pace. After Saturday’s competition, played in coolish, spring-like weather that produced a field average of 73.531, a stroke-and-a-half higher than Friday, there are just nine players under par and guess what?
The lead is at just 4 under, shared by Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick, and the fact that Rahm is one stroke back and Bradley and Scheffler are two back and Burns and McIlroy sit just three off the lead is a 54-hole leaderboard on par with a few of the sterling ones in recent years.
Harken back to the luster of 2010 at Pebble Beach when five of the top six names on the leaderboard through three rounds were sticks named Dustin Johnson, Graeme McDowell, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and Phil Mickelson.
There was sparkle in 2015 at Chambers Bay when Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Branden Grace, and Johnson were tied for the 54-hole lead.
As for 2018 at Shinnecock, the glitter of a four-way tie for the lead between Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka, and Johnson — with Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson right there — was pretty good theater.
But what will take the stage Sunday at The Country Club doesn’t have to take a back seat to those outstanding dramas. It will feature a mixture of firepower, star power, and colorful story lines and it is owed to a philosophy that the USGA employs beautifully:
Soften the course setup slightly in Rounds 1 and 2, let 15-25 players break par each day, allow somewhere around 7 or 6 or 5 or 4 lead for 36, cut the field in half, then tighten things up with pin placements, greens speeds, and firmness.
Think it works? It does if you prefer that elite players win in the toughest conditions, because eight of the last 12 US Open winners have been ranked in the top 15 and the lowest-ranked winner was McDowell (37th) in 2010.
Formulas, however, can only provide the setting. The story lines are what humanize the competition and with the group that will be assembled at The Country Club, there is much to embrace.
OK, so none of these lads used to caddie at TCC and then walked across the street to win the US Open (as Francis Ouimet did 109 years ago). But Fitzpatrick is pretty much a neighborhood kid, isn’t he?
True, he’s not New England-born — he’s England-born — but every nine years he takes out Massachusetts residency, moves into Jamaica Plain to stay with Will and Jennifer Fulton, then strolls through the gates of The Country Club to compete for a national championship.
Bradley outranks Fitzpatrick for hometown status, of course, unless you know of another competitor in the field who owns a Massachusetts high school golf championship.
As for McIlroy, who owns the hearts of most PGA Tour fans here, there and everywhere for being so vocal in loyalty during tumultuous times, the crowd considers him one of them. Scheffler, who played a four-hole stretch in 5 over to squander the lead, is similarly well-liked, mostly because there’s nothing not to like about a kid who won the Green Jacket in April and does nearly everything correctly.
Zalatoris lost a PGA Championship playoff last month but always appears on the verge of finally getting that first win, whereas it’s hard to remember the last time when Burns didn’t win.
As for Rahm, the choppy double-bogey that knocked him out of the lead at the 18th hole and pushed him one back, the likelihood is it will add fuel to his emotional side. That is good. He got emotional a few times at Torrey Pines last June and that worked out nicely, didn’t it?
For the record, there is a sprinkling of unheralded names (Adam Hadwin is 2 under, tied for fourth; Joel Dahmen is joint seventh, at 1 under). But that was the story in past years, too, with Chez Reavie (2019), Brian Harman (2017), Andrew Landry (2016), Erik Compton (2014), Blake Adams (2012), and Gregory Havret (2010).
Adding a long shot is part of the formula, too, though it’s the chalk that is riding a healthy winning streak.