What to watch for

U.S. Open 2023: 5 questions heading into Saturday's third round at LACC


Ben Jared

June 17, 2023

LOS ANGELES — There weren’t many fans around the 18th green late Friday afternoon, the byproduct of a limited ticket sell and a penchant for leaving early infused in the DNA of the Tinseltown crowd. But while they were small in number, they were strong in voice, and they chanted the leader’s name as Rickie Fowler walked up his final hole.

Now, Fowler has long been a favorite of galleries, no matter the location. This was different. He was atop the leaderboard, something that hasn’t happened in what feels like forever. That the leaderboard in question is the U.S. Open’s doesn’t hurt. But the crowd chanted Fowler’s name because they know what he’s gone through with his game, the once-wunderkind reduced to watching the past two national championships from the sidelines. So to know where Fowler had been to where he was, the crowds let him know they were going to help get him home.

“I sure hope everyone can relate to struggles because everyone deals with them. No one's perfect,” Fowler said on Friday evening, 10 under through two days to hold a one-shot lead over Wyndham Clark at Los Angeles Country Club. “I think you'd be lying if you haven't been through a tough time, especially if you play golf.

“It was great being able to walk up 18, especially after hitting a good drive and hitting it on the green. Didn't have a whole lot to worry about. The fans have been great here. I feel like especially yesterday as the round went on, just kind of more and more energy with … as I continued to go more and more under par.”

There remains a host of players in his way and a golf course that threatens to get down to business come Saturday. But that Fowler is in this position is a win in itself, and as he noted, his recent slumps have him ready for what awaits.

“Going through the last few years, yeah, there's probably plenty of people that might have just hung it up, but for the guys that play for a living out here and know high-level golf, part of the struggles … I wouldn't say I necessarily enjoyed it, but looking at it, I did, just because of how much I learned about myself, my swing, my game,” Fowler said.

There might not be many fans at LACC. But it’s clear who the ones that are here are pulling for.

Here are five questions about what’s on tap for Saturday at the U.S. Open:

Can Rickie keep the trouble at bay?

The good news: Fowler continues to rack up red figures. A day after recording a U.S. Open-record 10 birdies, Fowler birdied his first three holes Friday, ending with eight birds on the round. The bad: Fowler also had six bogeys. Those will happen in the U.S. Open, even an Open with its defenses down, and those crooked numbers don’t seem so bad against his blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, for Fowler to win this championship, his bad holes need to be a little bit better.

But those that think this week is an aberration are sorely mistaken. Fowler is 12th in strokes gained over the last six months, according to DataGolf, and has finished T-15 or better in six of his last seven starts. No, Fowler hasn’t played in this event since 2020, but he does have three previous top-10s in the championship, including a T-2 at 2014. Fowler may not win, but these past two days have proven Fowler is back, and worthy of Ryder Cup consideration.

Will the U.S. Open get mean?


Gina Ferazzi

Friday was not as kind as Thursday, the scoring average almost a full stroke higher. The jump can be attributed to tee markers moved back on a number of holes, fewer accessible pins then their Thursday counterparts and the sun finally breaking through the June Gloom to firm the fairways and greens up every-so-slightly. Yet the leaderboard remains painted … excuse us, swallowed in red, with a whopping 29 players under par. This is certainly not your father’s U.S. Open.

So perhaps the question isn’t will the U.S. Open get mean, but how mean. Sunny and warm conditions are expected on Saturday, which should continue to harden the playing surfaces. The greens were rolling at a 13 in Round 2 and a similar speed should be in play for Round 3. We’re not envisioning the greens turning into trampolines, flags to be placed a foot or two away from the edges or the par 3s tipping at more than 300 yards—good shots and strategy will still be rewarded. But if we’re ever going to get conditions that lead to routine utterances of “good bogey” this week, it’s coming on Saturday.

Can Xander keep up his U.S. Open magic?


Sean M. Haffey

For most of Friday it looked like Xander Schauffele was playing his way out of contention with three straight bogeys on the back, including at the par-5 14th and short par-3 15th. But Schauffele answered, making birdies on the brutal finishers at 17 and 18 for an even-par 70 during, statistically, the toughest part of the day.

“It was big, just to keep myself in touch,” said Schauffele, remaining at eight under and just two off Fowler’s lead. “Four back wouldn't have been out of this world, but I was just playing too good a golf in my head to sort of let that myself or that round get away from me. It got away from me there in the middle, or the latter I should say with—nuked a wedge on 14 and the green being really firm on 15 it made that really hard, actually. Yeah, birdieing 17 and 18 is not something you have to do, I guess, but I'm glad I did it.”

Despite all the talented names on the board, Schauffele’s might be the scariest thanks to his U.S. Open track record. The X-Man finished T-7 or better in his first five starts at this championship, and his lone “miss” was still a T-14 last year.

Who will make a run?


Richard Heathcote

Or framed in another light, how far back is too far back? We’re only halfway through this rodeo yet there are just nine players within six strokes of the lead and 16 within eight. It’s hard to envision the list of contenders dropping any further. (Consider that 25 of the last 27 U.S. Open winners have been within three shots after 36 holes.)

Former U.S. Open champ Dustin Johnson bounced back from a quad on his second hole to finish at six under through two days, and Harris English—owner of back-to-back top-five finishes at this championship—is at seven. Scottie Scheffler, who is putting together a Koepka-like tear in majors, quietly put together a 67-68 start. In his first major start as a pro Sam Bennett has shown his Masters performance was no fluke, tied with Scheffler at five under.

But because this U.S. Open has felt and looked a heck of a lot like an Open Championship, the real lurker is Cam Smith. The current holder of the claret jug is in 10th, six shots back after a 69-67. However, Smith plays his best when the course is at its worst, and with conditions firming by the minute his vision and short-game creativity could push him towards the top.

“Yeah, hopefully this place gets really baked out and we can have some fun out there,” Smith said Friday afternoon.

Can Rory give himself a chance on Sunday?

We don’t need to remind you that McIlroy’s total of four majors has remained at four for some time. The sneaky thing about McIlroy’s major drought is how few realistic chances he had at a title coming into Sunday. He’s chipped away at the dynamic over the past year, at the 2022 Open, last month’s PGA Championship and even at the U.S. Open at Brookline last June. Some may look at those misses as an indictment on McIlroy, and perhaps there’s some truth to that, but we think that points to McIlroy relearning how to close, knowing what works, what doesn’t and what he needs to do.

“​​I think every major championship and every venue is different. You just have to play what the course gives you,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I'm hitting the ball well. I've hit it well off the tee. I felt like coming into this week that was going to be a key for me if I could put the ball in play. You can play from there and create some scoring opportunities. That's really my game plan over the next couple days. Put the ball in play off the tee, and I think I'll be just fine from there.”


Ross Kinnaird

To get to Sunday, he needs to get through Saturday first, and on the season McIlroy ranks 23rd in Round 3 scoring. He doesn’t need to be in the final pairing, but he needs to stay within two shots of the lead. Easier said than done, but after what McIlroy has endured over the past week and year, the golf is the easy part.

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