Zalatoris, Fitzpatrick share 54-hole lead at The Country Club

Rory McIlroy still in contention despite difficult day on Saturday

Zalatoris, Fitzpatrick share 54-hole lead at The Country Club

Rory McIlroy. Pic: USGA

By Damian Mullan

Reporter:

By Damian Mullan

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damianmullan@hotmail.co.uk

If championship Sunday in the 122nd U.S. Open can match the high drama of Round 3 on Saturday at The Country Club, fans are in for a wild ride. The way the lead kept flipping, one almost felt sorry for the folks manning the leader boards.

By the end of a turbulent and challenging day when temperatures dropped into the 60s, winds gusted in the mid-20s and red numbers were replaced by red faces, two players seeking their first major championship – and a bit of history – led the way.

Matt Fitzpatrick, an Englishman who is vying to join all-time great Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win a U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur at the same venue, and Will Zalatoris of Plano, Texas, who is looking to become the fourth player to have his name on both the U.S. Open and U.S. Junior Amateur trophies, sit at 4-under 206.

They are part of a leader board that features six players ranked in the top 18 of the Official World Golf Ranking. Zalatoris, the runner-up in last month’s PGA Championship and the 2021 Masters, is No. 14, and Fitzpatrick, whose only win on U.S. soil to date is the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club, is No. 18. Fitzpatrick shot 68 while Zalatoris shot 67 on the 7,210-yard, par-70 layout.

World No. 2 Jon Rahm could have led Zalatoris and Fitzpatrick by one stroke if not for a double-bogey 6 on his final hole when his approach shot from a fairway bunker caught the lip and stayed in the sand, and his third shot plugged in a greenside bunker. The 27-year-old Spaniard, seeking to become the eighth player to successfully defend his U.S. Open title, settled for a 1-over 71 and a 54-hole total of 207.

The group at 2-under 208 includes world No. 1 and 2022 Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who also can join Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods and fellow Texan Jordan Spieth as a U.S. Open/U.S. Junior Amateur champion, Vermont native and 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley and first-round leader Adam Hadwin, a last-minute alternate who is bidding to become the first Canadian winner of this championship. Scheffler got to 6 under on Saturday by holing out a 101-yard wedge approach on the par-5 eighth for eagle, only to give four strokes back coming home, including a double-bogey 5 on the 141-yard 11th.

Bradley could become the first New Englander to win the U.S. Open since Connecticut native Julius Boros prevailed in a playoff in 1963 at The Country Club for his second title.

Another stroke back is a group featuring 2011 U.S. Open winner and world No. 3 Rory McIlroy, world No. 9 Sam Burns and 54-hole co-leader Joel Dahmen.

All eyes, of course, will be on the Sunday weather forecast, which is calling for chillier temperatures – the high might creep into the low 60s – with gusty winds similar to Saturday.

When play began on Saturday, 23 players were in red figures. By day’s end, that number dropped with the temperatures as just nine are under par, and the scoring average climbed from 72.0 to 73.5.

“I put my sun cream on before the round, and I was thinking, oh, it's going to get nice and warm, but quite the opposite by the end of the day,” said Fitzpatrick, who became the first Englishman in 102 years to win the U.S. Amateur. “The wind was strong. It made it tough. You had to be switched on with the way you were hitting it, where you were missing it, and I think that was why it was a great challenge. [Just] really happy with my score.”

Nicklaus won his U.S. Amateur in 1961 at Pebble Beach and then returned 11 years later to capture the U.S. Open. Obviously, Fitzpatrick has found a liking to The Country Club layout, which features a slightly different routing than nine years ago.

Consecutive birdies on 14 and 15, and another on the iconic 17th hole got Fitzpatrick to 5 under for the championship before a wayward tee shot on No. 18 led to his third bogey of the round.

“To come back here and play so well again, it just gives me growing confidence round by round,” said Fitzpatrick, a seven-time winner on the DP World Tour (formerly PGA European Tour). “I certainly think it gives me an edge over the others. I genuinely do believe that. It's obviously a positive moment in my career. It kind of kickstarted me.”

Zalatoris also was here nine years ago. It was a year before he won his U.S. Junior Amateur title and four years prior to him representing the USA on the victorious Walker Cup Team. In the four years since he turned pro out of Wake Forest – the same school where Fitzpatrick’s younger brother and caddie from 2013 (Alex) just completed his eligibility – the 25-year-old has been steadily rising in the OWGR. His lone win to date is the TPC Colorado Championship on the Korn Ferry Tour, but he has had two playoff defeats in 2022, the aforementioned PGA Championship and the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in February. He also tied for sixth in this year’s Masters.

The breakthrough seemingly is on his fingertips.

“I think especially coming off the PGA it gave me a lot of belief and confidence that I belong in this situation,” said Zalatoris. “There's a difference in thinking it and then actually being in the situation and believing it. That's probably the biggest change. I've put myself in this situation a few times in my career, and obviously I have to go out and get it tomorrow.”

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