Shinnecock Happens: Berger, Finau parlay early tee times into share of US Open lead

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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (AP) — Daniel Berger managed to hit a sweet spot that was even smaller than the target area on one of Shinnecock Hills’ glassy greens: He played well enough to make the cut at the U.S. Open, but not so well that he teed off among the leaders after the course turned treacherous late in the day.

Just one stroke ahead of the cut line after 36 holes, Berger parlayed an early tee time into a 4-under 66 on Saturday to improve to 3 over for the tournament — still seven strokes behind second-round leader Dustin Johnson as he began his round.

Tony Finau teed off 44 minutes later, at 10:57 a.m., and also shot 66 to finish at 3 over.

Then they waited for more than four hours while the course brought the rest of the field back to them.

“I think to get out there early and play a good round really was to my benefit,” said Berger, who was in a four-way tie with Finau, Brooks Koepka (72) and Johnson (77). “If someone shoots 4 under this afternoon, it’s more like 8 under.”

No one came close.

There were five rounds at or under par the whole day, and none of them teed off after 11:08 a.m. The first 11 groups had a scoring average of 73.6; the last 11 groups — the top 22 golfers through the first 36 holes — averaged 77.

“The guys that were playing at 3 o’clock are playing a different course than the guys that played at 11,” said Russell Knox, who teed off at 1:09 p.m. and shot 75. “I don’t think it crossed the line, but it was as hard of golf as we can play.”

Playing in the last group, Johnson shot 77, with a bogey on the last hole that cost him sole possession of the lead. Koepka played the last seven holes at 3 over. Justin Rose (73) had five bogeys on the last 11 holes. Henrik Stenson (74) made the turn at 1 under and shot 40 on the back nine.

Rickie Fowler started the day tied for ninth and shot 84. He left the course wishing he had played more poorly in the first two rounds and avoided the worst the course had to offer.

“It would just be nice, if I’m not sitting here wishing I made cut at five or six over,” said Fowler, who teed off at 2:26 p.m. “When it’s that big an advantage to playing in the morning versus the afternoon, I think it takes away from the work that the guys have done the first two days.”

Finau finished the third round hoping he could enter Sunday within six strokes of the lead; more than that would be too far back, he figured.

“I barely made the cut,” Finau said. “Going into today, I needed something special to happen to even have an outside chance.”

Something special did happen.

Shinnecock happened.

Just like in 2004, the last time the U.S. Open was held here, the USGA conceded it lost control of the course. Chief executive Mike Davis said the wind was stronger than expected, drying out the greens and making some of the holes unplayable.

“It was a tale of two different golf courses today,” he said. “We want the U.S. Open to be tough, but we saw some examples late in the day where well-executed shots were not only not being rewarded, but in some cases penalized.”

Players didn’t need to be told that.

At least not the ones who teed off in the afternoon.

“Nobody enjoys that,” Knox said. “I made three birdies today and they felt like eagles. But when it’s like that, you just guarantee you’re going to get a superstar winner. Because you cannot fake it when it’s that difficult.”