BROOKLINE, Mass. — Jon Rahm looked up at the sky and cursed, wanting to know what he did to deserve this evil. His putt on the fourth par 5 should have broken right, he had to break right with the wind blowing hard and fierce from his left. The ball had other ideas, and after looking at his ball, then his putter, then the sky, he had no choice but to scream. Of course, Rahm has a penchant for profanity, like most of us. This was different. This was gut. From the deepest, the deepest. It wasn’t frustration manifesting itself in a four-letter word. She was a personal affront, hand-delivered by the class, made worse by the knowledge that the fight was just beginning and there was nothing she could do about it.
“For crying out loud,” Rahm exclaimed later in the afternoon on the 12th after his approach that he thought would spin didn’t. “What a bloody day.” East prior to he finished his round with a skulled approach and three shots from the sand that led to a double.
And this is one of the chosen few who survived.
After two days of winning love as a tough but charming old-school setup, The Country Club woke up and chose chaos, stripping away the jokes and leaning into the evil that lay within that left the countryside staring in stunned resignation.
“Yeah, it was one of the toughest days on a golf course I’ve had in a long time,” Rory McIlroy testified after a 73 for three. He echoed Joel Dahmen: “I knew it was going to be tough. I didn’t know it was going to be that hard.”
How did it get so hard? The USGA did not water the course Friday night, which made the greens and fairways roll tight and fast. Oh, and the wind, which had passed off and on the past two days, decided to put the flags in a perpetual yoga pose. Sometimes it’s that simple. The result: Anything less than good was sent for packaging. Hardened greens turned rough from a minor inconvenience to unanswered questions. There were few, if any, tap-in releases; if you wanted to save par, you needed to convert a 20ft footer. Those who tried to bomb and explode discovered that not all designs are vulnerable to modern technology and strategy.
And yet, good approach shots held, balls didn’t sway, putts didn’t roll endlessly on the greens. He was ruthless and diabolical, but he was fair. The day delivered that sought-after but seldom-heard ideal that this championship strives to be. Where the best of the best are made to look like us, where there’s not so much red and a lot more black, where “good bogey” is meant. More important was how he got to this destination.
For years the USGA has fought the controversy that other majors have not, the integrity of its peer at the cost of the integrity of its setups. There is no controversy here. To one man, player after player claimed that yes, The Country Club was as brutal as it seemed, but there was nothing superficial or nefarious about its punishment.
“It’s great. I told Bones going up 18, that’s what a US Open should be like,” Justin Thomas said after two over 72. “It’s very tough. Par is a big score on a lot of holes. kill. We don’t do this very often, and I think it’s very, very appropriate and totally acceptable to have this type of test and this difficult setup for a US Open, and it’s strictly for the conditions.”
“Literally when people ask me what’s the hardest golf course you’ve ever played, I say The Country Club,” said Will Zalatoris. “I think it has a good mix of short holes and longer holes, but on the shorter holes you just make one mistake and you’re fighting for par.”
On the surface, the numbers don’t seem obscene, a scoring average of 73.53, almost a shot and a half higher than Friday’s mark, but nothing out of the ordinary for the national championship. Ditto the fact that only seven of the 64 players broke par and that more than 40 percent of the field failed to break 75. The evil lies in the specificity.
Brooks Koepka, the man who once said majors were easy to win and has the record to back it up, ejected with six bogeys in his first nine holes. Collin Morikawa opened and closed with three straight bogeys, but was up seven in the middle 12 holes. On the par 3 sixth, which was listed at 197 yards but looked like he was playing 297, Morikawa, arguably the best iron player to see the game since Tiger, saw a well-hit ball look good until it started to look bad, gobbled up a gust and rose well to the left of the green. He stumbled back to the bag and glanced to the right, and you couldn’t help but wonder if Morikawa saw the clubhouse and wished she was inside him drinking a much-needed adult drink.
There was Scottie Scheffler, the Masters champion who has been more machine than man this year, taking the lead on an eagle fairway hole at the eighth, and in that moment it felt like the world No. 1 had No. .2 main in the bag. He then proceeded to miss a double chip on the 11th, squashed an approach and pitched on the 12th, added another bogey on the 13th and hit such a poor shot on the 14th that to call him a shank would be generous. He finished that four-hole stretch in five, and when he came off the 14th he looked like he needed a warm blanket, hot chocolate and a hug.
“I really didn’t play that bad,” Scheffler said after a one over 71. “I think I took a bad shot. I think the second in 14 was bad. Other than that, I didn’t do anything that bad. It’s just the US Open. Things happen like that, and they happen quickly.”
Patrick Rodgers was tied for the lead at four under par into the corner only to shoot 41 on the inside nine. Dahmen started the day with a one-shot lead, bogeying four of his first eight holes and not having a single birdie, but he is just three shots away. McIlroy went south early and then fought like hell for a fighting chance at Sun… okay, that’s it, but you get the gist. It was a butcher shop, and it was delightful.
There were bright spots. Denny McCarthy made the cut on the number and thanks to a two-under par day he jumped 44 places. New England’s own Keegan Bradley shot a 69 that earned him a welcome in the 18th that could only have been stronger had Bradley lit up a Yankees jersey. Rahm looked like he was going to burn himself out, righting the boat and shaking off a bad shot on the final hole to keep his title defense alive.
“Obviously it was extremely difficult conditions, the wind was a little bit higher and stronger than in the last couple of days, a different direction,” Rahm said. “So the course is a bit firmer, right, that’s just a recipe for difficulty.”
Will Zalatoris, who shot a 67, said it felt like a 61, and Matt Fitzpatrick followed it up with a 68, earning a spot in Sunday’s final pair. However, Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick may be disqualified at the end of the night, as there are rumors that they may have been playing on a different course.
As for Sunday, the damage shouldn’t be as severe for the final round. Nighttime storms should soften the course from time to time, and a little rain goes a long way for players of this stature. No matter; Saturday set the stage for a wonderful finale. Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick will be looking for their first majors while Rahm tries to defend his. Scheffler could turn a great season into the best of all time, Bradley can make the hometown proud and Rory will try to do what he has tried so hard to do since 2014.
Whatever happens, after years of existential angst over what this tournament is supposed to be and how it’s supposed to achieve an increasingly challenging aspiration, the US Open, for one day at least, was back to being the US Open. .
MORE COVERAGE OF THE US OPEN FROM GOLF DIGEST