ERIN, Wis. – In advance of the final round of the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills, GolfChannel.com writers weigh in on some pressing questions including who they think will take home the hardware Sunday evening.
Have the low scores damaged this U.S. Open?
HOGGARD: If 12 over par was leading the U.S. Open and players had spent the last three days searching for golf balls in the deep fescue rough and signing for bogeys, the blowback would be deafening and the players would be demanding answers. After the last two U.S. Opens, the USGA needed to avoid any miscues at all costs, and if record scoring is the result then so be it.
LAVNER: Not at all. There has been a lot of social-media chatter that this Open has devolved into a regular PGA Tour event, but this is the course that was presented. Having covered the 2011 U.S. Amateur here, Erin Hills is an absolute beast when it’s firm and fast. Unfortunately, heavy rain earlier this week made the course play much softer than the USGA could have ever hoped. No asterisk required here.
MELL: Not yet. We’ve got a final round to play, and a spectacular finish could completely change the way we remember this championship. Yeah, all the record scores already posted here don’t help the U.S. Open’s already black-and-blue reputation, but an unforgettable final act, with stiffening winds giving this course its proper defense, could be more than salve for the wounds.
GRAY: No. As multiple players have pointed out, the wide spread of scores is a testament to the legitimacy of Erin Hills as a major layout. Good shots get rewarded, while bad shots get punished. It’s no cake walk out there – if it was, the top three players in the world would still be around. And yes, it’s different from the “typical” U.S. Open experience, but Mike Davis and Co. have a decade’s worth of traditional setups coming our way. Embrace the change while we have it.
Player outside top 5 who will make a charge?
HOGGARD: Drawing inspiration from his U.S. Ryder Cup team uniform he donned for Saturday’s round, Patrick Reed went around Erin Hills in 65 strokes to move within four strokes of the lead. It will likely take something similar to that on Sunday for Reed to pull off the comeback, but if anyone can do it, Reed’s the guy.
LAVNER: Patrick Reed. Coming off a 65, playing the tournament that he covets most, Captain America should have plenty of good vibes entering the final round. That he is the pursuer, not the frontrunner, will relieve some of the final-round pressure for a guy who surprisingly hasn’t been a factor in many majors.
MELL: Patrick Reed. Now that he may finally have figured out how to get his Captain America mojo going in a major, he looks dangerous. He looks like that Ryder Cup star we’ve been waiting to take over a major.
GRAY: Russell Henley. He might be overshadowed in his final-round pairing by Captain America Patrick Reed, but he has the potential to go low and get into the thick of contention even though he’s four behind Harman. Henley won his first start as a PGA Tour member at the 2013 Sony, slayed Rory McIlroy among others in a playoff three years ago at Honda and rallied just two months ago to win the Shell Houston Open. He’s got the game, and if the putter gets hot – as it often does – he can make up ground in a hurry.
Winning score and champion?
HOGGARD: Brooks Koepka. Even with winds that are forecast to reach 15 mph, there’s little chance the teeth will return to Erin Hills in time for the final round. With five players already double digits under par, there will be no retreating – Brooks Koepka wins at 15 under par.
LAVNER: Brooks Koepka, at 13 under. Harman doesn’t have a top-25 in a major, let alone experience as the leader, so it’s easy to see him fading. It’ll be difficult for Thomas to back up a record round. And Fleetwood had to sleep on that 18th-hole mistake. Koepka often acts like he’s impervious to stress, and that attitude will be put to the test on Sunday with the wind finally expected to blow. I think he gets it done.
MELL: 14 under. Rickie Fowler. Overnight rains keep Erin Hills softer than the USGA would like, but the winds are projected to stiffen on Sunday. It’s Fowler’s time. He’s still young, but he’s more proven than any player sitting in front of him. His little rally on the back nine Saturday sets him up to finish off what he started on Thursday.
GRAY: I still feel like this is Koepka’s to win, and I think he’ll get it done at 14 under. The wind is expected to blow for the final round, which could present new challenges for the players, but Koepka’s length off the tee remains a strength as long as he can keep the ball out of the fescue. His major record has been building to a breakthrough, and by night’s end he’ll have his arms around his first major title.