Record broken, title in reach
Thomas’s 9-under 63 puts him one stroke behind leader Harman
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.