Will Erin Hills remain friendly on Sunday?
ERIN, Wis. – Imagine if Brian Harman had known a week ago that his score through 54 holes at the U.S. Open was 12 under. How large would his lead be? “About a 10-shot lead in most Opens,” Harman figured. Not at Erin Hills, which has been left defenseless this week by soft winds and even softer conditions. After a day of unprecedented low scoring, Harman leads by only one stroke over the trio of Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood. A dozen others are within six shots of the lead. None of those top 16 players have ever won a major. One of them will on Sunday. “Going to be a really cool day for someone tomorrow,” said Rickie Fowler, who’ll start his round two shots off the lead. “I’m looking forward to my shot.” The leaderboard is so packed and the scoring conditions so ripe that Harman, who’s making his first major start since missing the cut in all four in 2015, wouldn’t be surprised if he’s trailing when he steps on the first tee at 3:54 p.m. ET. The question, though, is which course will he and his chasers be playing on Sunday. Will Erin Hills continue to cough up birdies in abundance, or will it finally toughen up? Will we see a back-nine thrill ride on Sunday? Or will this U.S. Open revert back to previous ones, in which players simply hang on for dear life, par becoming a satisfying – and usually effective -- score on each hole? Some of it depends on pin placements, of course. But much of it depends on the weather. It’s doubtful the course will play much firmer – rain began to fall soon after the third round ended – but the winds are supposed to increase to nearly 25 mph, which would be the strongest of the week. In addition, the winds are forecast to shift, and by early afternoon will be coming from the north. That means players must adjust their gameplans after spending the first three rounds playing with a southwest breeze. “That will change things,” Harman said. “If it comes out of the north, it’s going to be a different golf course.” Said Fleetwood: “If it does blow, you’ll definitely have to play proper golf. And it will play a lot tougher.” It also may mean players who hope to emulate Thomas’ big move on Saturday – in which he shot a record-setting 9-under 63, moving up 22 spots on the leaderboard – are out of luck. “It would be hard to make a real run with 25 mph winds,” Koepka said. “With that being said, he did shoot 9 under today.” No matter which direction or how hard the wind blows, you can probably expect a finish unlike most U.S. Opens. Erin Hills’ architects designed the course for the possibility of a back-nine sprint. The last six holes, in particularly, were set up that way, thanks to two par 5s and a short (and potentially drivable) par 4. Based on how those final six holes have played thus far, it could produce the most unique U.S. Open finish in quite some time. The par-3 13th was at its easiest when it played to 227 yards in the first round. It’s been shorter but harder the next two rounds, and ranks as the seventh most difficult hole on the course. The 14th has been the most difficult par 5 on the course this week, and has yet to be set up using the back tees at 650 yards. If that’s where the tee is Sunday, it might not be reachable in two, although players will benefit from having a northerly wind to their backs. The par-4 15th was set up at 288 yards on Saturday, which explains why it played to nearly a half-stroke under par, with three players making eagle. Will the USGA dare make it drivable again on Sunday? The yardage may not matter, as a north wind also will help there. The 16th has been the easiest par 3 this week, while the par-4 17th has been the most difficult hole on the course, twice playing to more than 520 yards. The 18th, meanwhile, is the easiest hole on the course, despite twice playing at more than 665 yards. The southerly winds have helped, but it may not be reachable on Sunday? Wisconsin native Steve Stricker, who starts the day 10 shots off the pace, expects the contenders to be aggressive on the last six holes – an unusual occurrence at most U.S. Opens. “It’s going to add some excitement, really, instead of a guy hitting it in the rough and hacking it out and struggling to make a par kind of thing,” he said. Those at the top of the leaderboard certainly have taken advantage of those final six holes. Harman is a bogey-free 7 under in that stretch this week. Si Woo Kim is 6 under. Koepka is a bogey-free 6 under. “The back nine really suits my eye,” Koepka said. “I don’t know why. I think there’s a lot of tee shots that are left to right. And that might be why. I just hit hard down the left-hand side and let it come back. “I love this golf course. I think it’s great.” Thomas is 9 under … and that’s just for the last four holes. He birdied three of them on Saturday. “Being this soft, birdies are going to happen,” Thomas said. Then he added: “You never know how the USGA is going to set it up for tomorrow.” So far, Erin Hills has proven quite friendly this week. Time to step on the gas for one more round.
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