20 June 2021: Late on Saturday, Mackenzie Hughes must have looked in the mirror at his accommodations and smiled at the man in the mirror. The 30-year-old produced some scintillating golf on his way to a share of the lead. And he must feel that a new layer was unpeeled off his calm veneer as he made a remarkable 63-footer for eagle on the 13th hole. Hughes (68) may not have won since his only victory in 2016, but he affirmed his status as contender with a tricky up and down birdie on the final hole. Louis Oosthuizen (70) has a habit of showing up at the majors, even though he hasn’t repeated the success he enjoyed at the 2010 Open Championship. He matched Hughes with an emphatic 51-footer for eagle on the 18th hole. Russell Henley (71) struggled to break 80 on his last visit to Torrey Pines. But the man he brought this week is a different version. He retained a slice of the lead for a third day running, holing out from the sand, a 65-footer off the bunker on the eleventh hole.
Richard Bland discovered the yips, burdened perhaps by the weight of leading in the US Open. He stumbled to a birdie less 77 and dropped outside the top twenty.
The number going into a very promising Sunday is 5-under 208. Hughes has just one win on the PGA TOUR. A second this week will not only double his tally, but also seal his legacy as a champion golfer. If Henley can keep it together for one more day, he will never forget this week for the rest of his life, he might already be at that point after being atop the leaderboard for three straight days.
“Tied for the lead going into the last day of a major, you never know,” said Henley. “I’m 32, I don’t know how many more good years I have left, but hopefully a lot. I’m just excited. You always wonder what it would feel like to be in contention.”
Oosthuizen will be hunting from a familiar perch – since his career defining victory at St Andrews, he has finished second on five different occasions. The South African was runner-up in the 2017 and 2021 PGA Championships, 2012 Masters, and the Open and US Open in 2015. Sunday is as much a test of his pedigree, as it is a test of nerves for his fellow leaders.
“Look, it will help a bit, but I need to play well,” said Oosthuizen. “There’s a lot of great players who have a chance of winning this, and I just need to go out and play as good as I can tomorrow.”
“I think a year ago that would have been a very boring eagle with a few people going nuts. But that was nice to see fans back, and it’s great to hear the crowds,” he said, reacting to the wild response to his eagle at the 18th hole.
Sundays in golf showcase frailties far better than most other activity. Ask Bland, who already suffered it a day in advance. Even Jordan Spieth wasn’t spared on a Sunday at the Masters in 2016. Jean van de Velde burnt a four-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the Open to define a meltdown.
The leaders will have to look behind their backs, chased as they are by 2011 champion Rory McIlroy (67) and defending champion Bryson DeChambeau (68), two shots adrift. The muscular American produced a memorable 68, bogey-free despite several forays into the peripheral areas.
“I feel like I’m starting to understand major championship golf and how to play it and how to go about managing my game, my attitude and just my patience level,” said DeChambeau. “If I can continue to do that tomorrow, I think I’ll have a good chance.”
McIlroy has been battling himself to rediscover his best golf, and he may have found some answers on Saturday. Despite making five birdies, McIlroy saved his biggest celebration for a bogey-save on the 15th hole. It was that important.
“This is the only tournament in the world where you fist-pump a bogey,” said McIlroy.
On Saturday, he shot just the third bogey free round this week. Rafa Cabrera Bello kept it clean on Thursday while Chez Reavie took the honours in the second round.
Jon Rahm (72) walks with an air of familiarity at Torrey Pines. He collected his maiden victory on the grounds and the world No.2 will fancy his chances on Sunday, sitting three strokes back at 2-under 211.
“As simple as it may sound, shoot as low as I can. I couldn’t tell you on the strategy. I vary a lot based on the pin position and the wind, and that’s what I’m going to have to see, but I feel like it’s to my advantage because I’ve played good golf here in the past. I’ve had some good Sundays out here, and I’m confident about tomorrow.”
Matthew Wolff (73) has held his own this week and memories of a runner-up finish at Winged Foot will spur him on when it is time to tee it up for the final round. Scottie Scheffler (70), a multiple winner this season, is keeping the two men company at two-under.
And then, let us not forget the last group of men, still under-par in this US Open. Dustin Johnson, the 2016 champion, Collin Morikawa, who won the PGA Championship in 2020 are 1-under. Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Kevin Streelman and Xander Schauffele are all in the mix at that number.
“This is a real golf course. It’s tough, it’s long, it’s everything you want. A lot of times when you have that, you’re going to see a lot of really good players up at the top of the leader board,” said Johnson.
Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Francesco Molinari, Sungjae Im, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Harris English are even through 54 holes.
According to notes from the USGA, “Sixteen countries were represented among the 71 players to make the cut, with the USA leading the way with 36. England and South Africa each had six, followed by Australia (4), Italy (3), Spain (3), Canada (2), Japan (2), the Republic of Korea (2), Argentina (1), Chile (1), Germany (1), the Republic of Ireland (1), Northern Ireland (1), Scotland (1) and Venezuela (1).”