The eventual winner of the 117th U.S Open Championship remains a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, within a conundrum.
With 18-holes to play at Erin Hills, 16 players are within six shots of the lead held by American Brian Harman on 12-under-par. All can legitimately claim to have a decent chance of victory in what is forecast to be the windiest day of the week. In tougher conditions, a few, some or many of the contenders will inevitably fall by the wayside.
But that is for the future. The star of round three, however, was not the leader, well as the gritty left-handed Harman – no southpaw has ever won this championship – performed in shooting 67. Instead, that accolade must go to Justin Thomas.
Amidst a nine-strong flurry of birdies and even two bogeys, the 24-year old from Kentucky shot the 31st 63 in major championship history (spooky) to reach 11-under-par for the week and take a prominent place amongst that large pack of contenders alongside Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood.
Indeed, it was a round for the ages, climaxed by a 310-yard 3-wood approach to the 18th green that expired only seven-feet from the cup. The putt for eagle was almost as impressive; the ball went in dead centre to give Thomas the distinction of shooting the lowest-ever round in any of the four majors – relative to par at least.
“It was obviously an awesome day,” he said. “The key was ending the front-nine with three birdies. They turned an average or a decent nine into a great nine, to where I could get some momentum going into the back and try to post a great number. I'm not sure when it's going to sink in or when I'm going to realise what I did.
“I know one thing, if it happens tomorrow and the result is what I want it to be, then I'll probably have a little different feeling. But I'm just so excited to give myself a great chance to win this golf tournament.
“I don't know what I'm going to feel tonight, if I'm going to sleep well. I'm sure I won't sleep in tomorrow. I usually don't. I know I'm going to be nervous, but it’ll be a good nervous. This is why I play – to get myself into this sort of position. I'm excited for the opportunity to see what happens.”
Indeed, just about the only certainty is that the new champion will be a first-time major winner – only the best recent member of that exclusive club, Sergio Garcia, is in the top-20 here – the destination of the famously nameless trophy is up for grabs.
But it is Harman the rest will have to catch. No easy task. The recent winner of the Wells Fargo Championship is clearly in the form of his 30-year old life.
“I got here by working hard and staying in the moment,” said the Georgian, a man clearly in love with cliches. “I don’t hit it as far as some, but I hit the first hole in two shots today, so I hit it far enough. I just have to keep playing my game.”
Marc Leishman, the lone Australian left extant by the halfway cut that fell on those who shot more than one-over par for the first 36-holes, shot an eventually disappointing level-par 72 to sit T17. Birdies at each of the opening two holes and another at the 8th took the 33-year old Victorian to seven under for the championship and, at that stage, well in contention.
Sadly, that score was to prove Leishman’s high-water mark. A double-bogey at the par-4 12th broke his momentum and three-putts for par at the drivable 15th was another setback, one compounded by one more dropped shot at the 16th.
“With no wind the conditions were as easy as you will get in a US Open,” he sighed. “But you still have to shoot a number. I played really well on the front nine and left a couple of putts out there. Through 11-holes I should and could have been six-under for the day. But I struggled from there. Three three-putts on the back-nine is pretty disappointing. Eliminate them and I’m still in with a bit of a chance.
“I actually hit a pretty decent drive at the 12th, almost where I aimed it. It was probably three-yards from the fairway, so ten-feet to the right I would have had a wedge to the green. Instead I had a terrible lie and had to chip-out. I then hit a terrible wedge shot. I was trying to land the ball past the pin and draw it back. But it came up 30-feet short. That was inexcusable. You can’t putt from short of that hole. I knew that.”
In the end then, Leishman was all but trampled in the rush to the top of the leaderboard.
“That was what it felt like when I looked up at the numbers on the scoreboard,” he confirmed. “I started pushing a little bit, going for pins I shouldn’t have. If you do that and don’t hit a perfect shot you’re going to make bogeys – and that’s what I did. I still have a lot to play for though – FedEx Cup points, the prizemoney and world ranking points. If I do something silly low, who knows what might happen.”