Fri. Jul 12th, 2024

The final round of the U.S. Open promises test in restraint for DeChambeau, McIlroy

By admin Jun22,2024

PINEHURST, N.C. — Rory McIlroy doesn’t mind admitting it: If there’s a leaderboard within his periphery out on the golf course, he’s going to look at it.

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So as he made his way through Pinehurst No. 2’s back nine Saturday during the third round, he couldn’t help but take a peek and imagine what was happening behind him. By the time McIlroy reached the 18th green, Bryson DeChambeau, who had started that day at 4 under, was suddenly 8 under.

McIlroy tried to focus. He stalked his long birdie putt that would likely put him in the final group with DeChambeau if it dropped, gave it his best roll and started walking after it. But unlike the putt he made Thursday for birdie on 18, this one missed.

As he walked into the scoring room and out toward the interview area, McIlroy still thought his deficit was 4 strokes. He stepped into a makeshift tent for a Sky Sports interview. By the time he had come out, he had seen what had happened: DeChambeau had double-bogeyed the 15th hole. The lead was now 2 strokes. It wasn’t over just yet. After conducting his general news conference, he was informed by a media member:

“Bryson made birdie on 17.”

“He did?” McIlroy asked.

The lead was back up to 3.

The swings at Pinehurst No. 2 are a feature, not a bug.

If a normal PGA Tour course allows players to race toward birdies, while a place surrounded by thick rough and trees like Valhalla turns the best players in the world into one-dimensional machines, what Pinehurst No. 2 has done this week is force competitors to know when to slam the brakes.

“I think there’s holes where you have to be aggressive. There’s holes where you have to be conservative,” McIlroy said after his round of 69. “There’s hole locations that you can take on and hit wedges close to. There’s hole locations you’ve got to stay away from.”

Bryson DeChambeau holds a 3-stroke lead going into the final round. Alex Slitz/Getty Images

The push and pull of the golf course made Saturday seem like every hole and every shot had monumental importance. Players such as Tony Finau and Ludvig Åberg, who at points during the day found themselves tied for the lead, found out just how much a bad shot can derail a round. Both made triple bogey on 13 and are now well back of DeChambeau.

Others, such as Matthieu Pavon and Patrick Cantlay, limited the damage and stayed the course. Pavon and Cantlay shot 1 under and even par, respectively, to tie McIlroy at 4 under heading into the final round.

“You feel like sometimes you are flying a little bit, your game, everything is going on,” Pavon said. “And then at some point you just miss one green, [you] can see a bogey, and then all of a sudden it starts to be harder in your mind and in your game.”

McIlroy himself, who started at 3 under, leaped all the way to 6 under twice during his round, only to drop back down to 4 under by the day’s end. His conservative approach on the 12th hole (hitting 3-wood instead of driver) gave him a perfect look at getting the ball within 10 feet for birdie. Conversely, his aggression on the 14th hole, where he hit driver 351 yards, allowed him to have a wedge that he put within 2 feet of the hole.

On the downside, an aggressive shot into the par-5 fifth hole left him a tough up-and-down for birdie that he missed, giving him a par on the course’s easiest hole. Later in his round, he tried to get close to the flags on 15 and 17 (both par-3s), resulting in two costly bogeys.

“I love the test that Pinehurst is presenting,” McIlroy said. “You’ve got to focus and concentrate on every single shot out there. It’s what a U.S. Open should be like.”

Watching other players struggle served to further highlight the kind of round DeChambeau put together. As it unfolded, it felt like a fever dream. Birdies on the fifth hole and the seventh put DeChambeau at 5 under. Though he was gaining on the second-round leader Aberg, he kept stretching and grabbing at his back. After making the turn, he asked for his physical trainer to stretch him as he dealt with a hip issue.

Though DeChambeau said the issue sometimes doesn’t allow him to fully turn through a shot, it didn’t seem to affect him Saturday. On the back nine, his drives traveled 348, 359, 335, 333, 344 and 341 yards.

Yet what has put DeChambeau on top of the leaderboard hasn’t necessarily been his powerful driving. On holes 13 and 14, DeChambeau hit drives into the waste area (the former happened after he hit iron off the tee and asked the fans not to boo him for it), but he stayed aggressive, landing both approach shots within 10 feet of the hole.

Rory McIlroy has a shot at breaking his major drought — if he can catch Bryson DeChambeau. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

“That’s kind of what you’re doing out here, is you’re trying to play conservative golf that gives you the opportunity to hit it close in some scenarios,” DeChambeau said. “That’s the best way I can describe it.”

Given the way DeChambeau has putted this week (fourth in strokes gained: putting), all the 2020 U.S. Open winner has had to do is put it on the green. For three straight days, Pinehurst No. 2 has showcased how much of a complete player DeChambeau has become — he’s the only one to have scored in the 60s all three rounds — as well as how much he’s relishing the spotlight.

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“That’s my favorite thing about tournament golf,” DeChambeau said. “When that pressure is on and I execute like I know how I can, there’s no better feeling in the world.”

McIlroy might be showing more restraint, even as he will have to chase DeChambeau on Sunday, but he has been here before. If anyone knows the danger of trying to force things as much as he knows the danger of not being aggressive at all (see: the Old Course in 2022, LACC in 2023), it’s him.

“I’m excited about it,” McIlroy said of trying once again to win his first major in over 10 years. “Hopefully tomorrow I produce the golf that’s needed to go one better.”

All eyes will be on McIlroy and DeChambeau and, as they tee off in different pairings, there will be plenty of scoreboard watching too. But the fact that this course has highlighted just what makes them both elite players is another reminder of the real duel at hand.

“At the end of the day, it’s me against the golf course,” said Pavon, who will be paired with DeChambeau. “My only goal every time I show up is trying to beat the golf course.”

This week, more than most, that’s far easier said than done.

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