SOUTHAMPTON, NEW YORK | By lunchtime Saturday, Shinnecock Hills could hardly have been better.
Warm and sunny with just a gentle breeze, it was an almost perfect mid-June day.
Then the wind arrived, the fangs came out and the U.S. Open was on edge again.
Did the USGA push Shinnecock Hills too far on Saturday?
And if so, what does that suggest about the final round on Sunday?
For sure, Shinnecock Hills turned into an ultra-fiery challenge Saturday afternoon as the wind blew, drying out a course already set up to play firm and fast. The greens began to turn brown. Putts rolled out and kept rolling. Bogeys became the currency of the afternoon.
Insistent that it would not allow a reprise of 2004 when the course became too crusty to play in spots, the USGA let it get dangerously close to that point on Saturday.
“They are not going to lose the golf course,” Patrick Reed said after shooting 71 on Saturday. “I feel like the whole entire golf course is fair, even 13 and 15 where those pins are.”
For the players who teed off later in the day, every shot seemed to be a leap of faith as the day wore on. Defensive golf became the theme. It became the only option, it seemed.
“Everybody had to play the same course. It got tough out there,” said Justin Thomas, who shot 74.
Three players broke par. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau shot 66, but they played early, catching the softer conditions. The longer the afternoon stretched, the more difficult Shinnecock became.
Rickie Fowler shot 84 in the third round. Second-round leader Dustin Johnson bogeyed six of his first eight holes. Phil Mickelson putted a moving ball to keep it from going off a green. By the end of the day every player in the field was over par.
By its nature, the U.S. Open is intent on being the toughest test in the game. Likewise, Shinnecock Hills is a stern test on a soft day and a high-wire act in conditions like those on Saturday.
The final round remains to be played. It should be tough. It should be unrelenting.
But it must be manageable.
Achieving that is the USGA’s charge Saturday night and Sunday morning.