ERIN, Wis. — You can seemingly see for miles in all directions across the vast Erin Hills landscape, yet there isn’t a major champion in sight. Peer at the leaderboard and you eventually find Sergio Garcia and Louis Oosthuizen, straining to keep in touch.
Barring something, shall we say, unforeseen, the U.S. Open will produce a seventh straight first-time major championship winner.
And he’ll likely have to do it in a manner that most of the past winners of the big trophy rarely would have considered — by making birdies.
Grass stains from forays into the rough and claustrophobia from narrow fairways have been replaced by grins and giggles, as a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour event has taken over what is typically one of the most exhausting tests on the golf calendar.
That is not to say there hasn’t been excitement or drama. In fact, it’s wide-open going into the final round. Nine players are within 4 shots of the lead — and we’re wondering if they have what it takes to get the job done in one of the game’s biggest tournaments.
“It’s going to be weird,” said Justin Thomas, who matched a major championship and U.S. Open record by shooting 63 on Saturday. “I don’t know what I’m going to feel. I’m sure I won’t sleep in; I usually don’t. I know I’m going to be nervous, but it’s a good nervous — that’s why I play, to get myself in this position, and I’m excited for the opportunity to see what happens.”
It is nearly impossible to predict because the competitors and their body of work offer no clear pattern. Aside from Rickie Fowler — who is ranked ninth in the world, contended at the Masters two months ago, and had top-5 finishes at all four majors in 2014 — no one among the top nine can lay claim to any kind of major championship insight.
Leading the way is a lefty, but not the Lefty who got all the attention coming into the U.S. Open and who isn’t even playing. Brian Harman, 30, has won twice in his PGA Tour career, including last month at the Wells Fargo Championship. But he’s playing in just his eighth major championship and his first since 2015. He has missed the cut five times at majors.
“It’s hard to play well when you’re not in them,” Harman said. “It’s hard to qualify for these things. This is the first [U.S.] Open I’ve been exempt for. I think being exempt and coming in a little early and not having it be so hectic the week of has definitely helped.
“But at the same time, it’s taken me longer to adjust to professional golf than it did to junior golf and amateur golf.”
There’s no way Harman should be able to stand up to the pressure on Sunday, but why would he be bothered by stress when the other contenders besides Fowler — Thomas, 24; Brooks Koepka, 27; Tommy Fleetwood, 26; Si Woo Kim, 21; Patrick Reed, 26; Russell Henley, 28; and Charley Hoffman, 40 — have no history of doing so at majors, either?
One of them is likely to prevail, and might do so in dramatic fashion.
But let’s use Reed as an example — with five PGA Tour victories, he’s the most accomplished player atop the leaderboard next to Fowler, yet he’s never finished in the top 10 in 13 previous starts in major championships.
Perhaps making it a bit easier is the knowledge that Erin Hills is nowhere near the suffocating sauna that typically affronts players in this tournament. So far, there have been 49 rounds in the 60s. Five players are at double-digit under par through 54 holes. In the history of the U.S. Open, only six players previously had ever gotten to double digits under par.
“There’s definitely some opportunity,” said Koepka, who has one PGA Tour victory. “I think that back nine, you can really shoot a low one. That back nine really suits my eye. I love this golf course; I think it’s great.”
Those are words rarely uttered at a U.S. Open. The venues typically produce a level of grumbling that has not been heard this week. And that suggests Erin Hills is too easy. Certainly, there is evidence to that effect: five scores of 65 or lower, including Thomas’ 63 that tied a major championship record.
But the bottom line is there will still be enormous pressure on Sunday. The shots still must be hit, the putts made. Typically, a U.S. Open final round is one of attrition, last man standing. This promises to be different, a shootout perhaps, but no less stressful.
“It’s not going to be an easy day, for sure,” Fowler said. “I’ve been there a handful of times and had some good finishes, but I’m looking forward to getting the job done.”
Whether others feel the same is tough to gauge. Such is the nature of a leaderboard void of major championship trophies.