Record bro­ken, ti­tle in reach

Thomas’s 9-un­der 63 puts him one stroke be­hind leader Har­man

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEP­PER

erin, wis. — Be­hold it. It’s a palette of un­com­mon beauty wrung from a pur­suit of com­mon mis­ery. It’s the score­card of a re­mark­able wisp of a 24-year-old Ken­tuck­ian from the third round of the U.S. Open, and it’s a fresh bea­con of hope in the cen­turiesold strug­gle be­tween hu­man­ity and golf. Out of all the ac­cursed and some­what less-ac­cursed score­cards of all the grind­ing since they be­gan this thing in New­port, R.I., in 1895, the card Justin Thomas signed Satur­day isn’t the best. It is the shini­est.

Of all the wretched, god­for­saken years, all the rounds and the damned predica­ments, all the cards signed by An­der­son and Jones and Ho­gan and Nick­laus and Ir­win and Woods, this card of 63 rep­re­sents the deep­est lac­er­a­tion of par. This un­prece­dented 9 un­der par came here where the glaciers once re­ceded and the cat­tle once grazed and the U.S. Open never turned up un­til now, with a card al­most as red as the Alabama Crimson Tide for whom Thomas once played. There are 10 3s on it and, for fur­ther fun, a 2. There’s an ea­gle on No. 18 that hinged on a 3-wood from 299 yards away right out of day­dreams. Two bo­geys some­how add to the luster.

“Fun, I know that,” Thomas said, and he said this at a U.S. Open, an event which, he said al­most po­et­i­cally, “is known for mak­ing you kind of hate your­self and hate golf.”

Well, this 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills has come in low on the hate-o-me­ter. It bounds in­cor­ri­gi­bly and un­con­trol­lably to­ward its fourth round with Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleet­wood at 11 un­der par but not even lead­ing, a dis­tinc­tion that goes to Brian Har­man at 12 un­der. It has Rickie Fowler at 10 un­der par, the on­rush­ing 21year-old South Korean Si Woo Kim at 9 un­der par, three play­ers in­clud­ing Ryder Cup whiz Pa­trick Reed at 8 un­der par, after Reed shot 65 then got up­staged.

None of the top 16 con­tenders has won a ma­jor. Some of the top 16 haven’t seen a top-10 fin­ish or eluded anonymity. Some have done splashy things only the golf nuts know, and Thomas lights up that cat­e­gory.

In ac­cess­ing a gaudy world rank­ing of No. 13, he has won thrice on the PGA Tour al­ready this sea­son and poured on four more top-10s to boot. In Hawaii in Jan­uary in the first round at the Sony Open, he scalded to the sport’s sev­enth-ever com­pet­i­tive 59, fin­ish­ing that, too, with an ea­gle. That he could be­gin a Satur­day stashed in 24th place along­side eight other golfers and bolt to the fore in his pink pants on a rain-soft­ened, light-winded course, did not seem all that out­landish.

“I’m not sur­prised,” Koepka said.

“Justin did it to­day; it’s out there, for sure,” Har­man said. “There’s no telling how low.”

“Wasn’t ex­actly see­ing that, but I’m look­ing for­ward to hear­ing about that when I get back to the house since J.T. and I are stay­ing to­gether,” Fowler said.

“It’s go­ing to be weird,” Thomas said of the evening. “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. I usu­ally don’t. So I’m pretty much dock­ing that for to­mor­row and fig­ure I have no chance to sleep in. But I know I’m go­ing to be ner­vous, but it’s a good ner­vous.”

What did seem out­landish was the sheer score­card of it, for in be­com­ing the fifth 63 in U.S. Open his­tory, and the 29th in ma­jor-tour­na­ment his­tory, it knocked aside a leg­end. That would be Johnny Miller’s oth­er­worldly, 8-un­der-par 63 at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oak­mont near Pittsburgh, which re­mains the stan­dard even after Satur­day be­cause it came in a fourth round for a win on a far more tor­tur­ous course on which only three other play­ers broke 70. “I wish he was calling it,” Thomas said of Miller, the long­time broad­caster, “just to hear what he would have said.”

The fresh­est 63 brimmed with such beauty that the 3-wood ap­proach to No. 18 can’t hoard the spot­light. The 3-wood from the tee on the par-4 No. 16 reached the green as if with vi­o­lins. The 9-iron out of the dreaded fes­cue at No. 12 found its way surely to a non-dreaded 10 feet. The geo­met­ric won­der of a birdie putt on No. 5 cured a peeved feel­ing — the ball in­ex­pli­ca­bly had stopped on the fringe be­fore­hand — un­til he sent it side­ways, per­fectly read­ing a break that curved right to­ward a loopy happiness.

Like a cagey old veteran, he touted a par, on No. 3, with a 6-iron from 207 yards with the ball above his feet and the wind from the left. “Some­thing about that shot kind of calmed me, and it made me very com­fort­able for the day,” he said.

From there came exquisitely read putts and tap-ins from exquisitely read chips, un­til he got to No. 18 and sat at the green with his hands shak­ing be­cause, he said, he had packed in­suf­fi­cient food and felt hun­gry, yet made ea­gle. It was enough to prompt a rea­son­able ques­tion from a re­porter about whether, on days like Satur­day and the 59, very-young Justin Thomas feels like the best golfer in the world. “No rea­son to an­swer that,” he said. “I can’t win with the an­swer to that ques­tion.”


Justin Thomas sinks his ea­gle putt on the 18th hole Satur­day for a record 9-un­der round.


Brian Har­man, play­ing his shot from the ninth tee dur­ing the third round of the U.S. Open, sits alone atop the leader board after a 67.

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