ERIN, Wis. — Patrick Reed was the early hero of the day, shooting a 7-under-par 65 to soar up the US Open leaderboard. But that lasted about 20 minutes.
Justin Thomas was the next hero, shooting a US Open-record 9-under 63 to grab the lead at 11 under. But his moment in the spotlight didn’t last long, either.
By the end of the third round, it was Brian Harman occupying the top of the leaderboard, shooting a 5-under 67 and entering Sunday’s final round at 12 under.
But his perch atop the field might not last long on Sunday. Three players are tied at 11 under — Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, and Tommy Fleetwood. Rickie Fowler is very much in contention at 10 under after shooting a 4-under 68. And overall, eight players remain within four shots of the lead, a deficit that is often insurmountable at most US Opens.
But not this weekend. Erin Hills, a first-time host, has played far easier than traditional US Open courses, allowing a 65 or better on all three days and allowing a breathtaking number of birdies and players under par (42 through three rounds). The 1-over cut line was the lowest since 1990 at Medinah. According to the United States Golf Association, Saturday was the easiest round of any US Open since 1983.
Sunday’s final round should be as wide open as Erin Hills’s tree-less fairways.
“We’re getting ready to see more fireworks,” Fox analyst Paul Azinger said. “These guys are all red hot, nobody’s really afraid of anybody on this board either, there’s not an intimidator there, and they’re just freewheeling and taking this place apart right now.”
This year’s tournament won’t be the first time that the US Open is a low-scoring birdiefest. In 2011, Rory McIlroy won at Congressional at 16 under. In 2003, Jim Furyk won at Olympia Fields at minus 8.
But the US Open traditionally offers a much tougher test than Erin Hills has posed over the last three days. Dustin Johnson winning at Oakmont last year at 4 under, with only three other players under par for the entire tournament, is more the norm. In 2012 and 2013, the winning score was plus 1. In 2006 and 2007, the winning score was plus 5.
“I feel like the US Open is supposed to be very uncomfortable,” said Thomas, whose round of 9 under broke Johnny Miller’s single-round record of minus 8 at Oakmont in 1973. “I think it’s kind of what the USGA and US Open is known for, is making you kind of hate yourself and hate golf and just really struggle out there. I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
Another nightfall of rain softened the course for Saturday, and the winds died down, allowing the golfers to attack the pins and resulting in 32 rounds under par.
“Certainly the moisture from last night, the rain from last night made it a lot easier,” said Zach Johnson, who shot a 4-under 68 and sits at minus 3 for the tournament.
Saturday’s round produced five eagles, including three on the No. 15, a par-4. The USGA moved the tee boxes up to 288 yards on Saturday, and Kevin Na, Ernie Els, and Michael Putnam all drove the green and sank their eagle putts. Thomas also drove the green, but missed his 6-foot eagle putt. Overall the hole was the easiest of the day, producing 31 birdies, just four bogeys, and nothing worse.
“Just being in a US Open and seeing and hearing so many birdies, usually those roars are for pars and stuff like that,” Thomas said. “When you give us soft greens, good greens, and not much wind, you know there are going to be some good scores.”
Nobody shot lower than Thomas, though, whose record-breaking 63 included nine birdies, two bogeys, and an eagle. He reached the green of the 667-yard 18th hole in two shots, landing a 3-wood from 310 yards just 8 feet from the hole, and then calmly sinking the putt.
But his most memorable shot of the day was an 18-foot putt on No. 5, a putt that he hit off the rough and watched it rainbow down the hill and into the cup for a birdie.
Thomas said that was a shot he wouldn’t have been able to pull off if not for the rain on Friday night.
“Without the rain last night, it would have came down [off the green],” he said. “It’s so steep there. You could see my ball trickling on the green, and that probably would have gone 6 to 8 to 10 feet past. I was trying to get over the fact of how mad I was that I didn’t have an 8-footer for birdie like I felt like I should have.”
Saturday’s round continued an impressive year for Thomas, 24. Currently ranked No. 13 in the world and third on the PGA Tour money list ($4.85 million), Thomas’s season has included three victories, a 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January, and an incredible 232-yard hole-in-one in Mexico in March.
Now he’s on the verge of his first major championship — if he can fend off 15 other golfers within six shots of the lead.
“It was funny because I looked at the leaderboard, and I was like, ‘Man, there are a lot of people at 7 or 8 under right now,’ ” Thomas said. “It’s pretty jam-packed. I know I’m going to be nervous, but it’s a good nervous, that’s why I play to get myself in this position. And I’m excited for the opportunity to see what happens.”