Fowler, Clark share the US Open lead with major champs chasing them

Published 12:09 am Sunday, June 18, 2023

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rickie Fowler brought the buzz to the U.S. Open with a 70-foot birdie putt only to lose the lead by missing from 3 1/2 feet on the final hole Saturday, giving him a share of the lead with Wyndham Clark and setting up a Sunday filled with possibilities.

Right there with them was Rory McIlroy. He played a steady hand — one birdie and one bogey over his last 14 holes on a course that finally started to play like a U.S. Open. McIlroy had a 69 that left him one shot behind, poised to end nine long years without a major.

“It’s nice to be in the hunt,” McIlroy said.

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Fowler had to settle for an even-par 70. Clark escaped big trouble from the barranca with a 6-foot par putt on the 17th to stay close, and then boldly took on a tight left pin at the 18th for a 6-foot birdie for a 69 that allowed him to catch Fowler.

The final hour brought a surprise at every turn. A long day of blazing sunshine baking the North course at Los Angeles Country Club gave way to the infamous marine layer that brought out some sweatshirts late in the day.

Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, never looked to be in the mix until he closed out his round of 68 by holing a 7-iron from 196 yards on the 17th hole and making a 20-foot birdie putt that put him in the penultimate group with McIlroy.

For so many others, it didn’t take much to lose ground.

Xander Schauffele began his round by taking three shots to get out of a fairway bunker, making three bogeys in five holes, only to get it all back before losing ground at the end with a series of poor drives. He was at 73, five shots back.

Harris English kept pace with the leaders until he missed short putts, big drives and ended his day with a chip shot from the deep collar around the 18th green that didn’t move the ball. His fourth bogey of the back nine gave him a 71, leaving him four shots behind.

The final hour saved what had been a stale atmosphere among the glitz of LA, with just about everyone playing a part. The five players within five shots of the lead included three major champions who have been No. 1 in the world — McIlroy, Scheffler and Dustin Johnson (71).

This is the third time Fowler has been in the final group at a major — and the first time he doesn’t have anyone in front of him, and he was so close to being the one to chase.

“Just a bummer. It would be nice for that one to go in,” Fowler said about his short miss. “Really doesn’t matter — having the lead, being one back, two back — you’re going to have to play good golf tomorrow.”

While this is Fowler’s third time in the final group of a major, for Clark it’s his third time playing in the final round of a major. He has been on the rise this year, winning at Quail Hollow last month for his first PGA Tour.

He didn’t drop a shot until the par-3 11th hole, and then Clark started to lag behind. He looked to be in big trouble on the 17th when hit approach peeled off to the right and into the barranca. Clark wisely took a penalty drop instead of going for the hero play, chipped to 6 feet and escaped with a bogey and a two-shot deficit.

And then came a two-shot swing.

McIlroy had a chance to end his major drought last summer at St. Andrews when he shared the lead going into the final round at St. Andrews, only for Cameron Smith to blow past him. He has been in position twice in the last two weeks, at the Memorial and Canadian Open, only to turn in a dud of a final round.

The stakes are enormous this time, on this stage. And he has the experience, though he wasn’t sure to make of that.

“It’s been such a long time since I’ve done it,” said McIlroy, whose last major was at the PGA Championship in 2014. “I’m going out there to try to execute a game plan, and I feel like over the last three days I’ve executed that game plan really, really well. And I just need to do that for one more day.”

Scheffler is suddenly in the mix, all because of one remarkable shot and one big putt. He has been the model of consistency this year, even in the majors — a tie for 10th at the Masters, a runner-up finish in the PGA Championship.

“I’m standing there on 17 tee and just made another bogey, and I think I was probably 4 under for the tournament and I’m looking up at the board and I’m seven shots back and I’m thinking maybe I can steal one shot coming in,” Scheffler said.

He stole three and now is well within range.

Fowler and Clark were at 10-under 200, one shot off the 54-hole record for the U.S. Open set by McIlroy at Congressional in 2011.

The marine layer blocking the sun had kept LACC’s greens receptive and scoring ridiculous, at least by U.S. Open standards. The sunshine made it a stronger test, and perhaps offered a preview of what’s to come.

The scores don’t indicate this is the toughest test in golf. It’s likely to feel like way for the players chasing the silver trophy — Fowler and Clark going for their first, McIlroy hopeful of a win that will take attention away from what has been keeping him from another.