U.S. Open: Rickie Fowler, Wyndham Clark lead heading into Sunday

Start with a club rarely used from the tee box, a 60-degree lob wedge. Set the ball on a tee to maximize spin. And for gosh sake, don’t take a full swing.

Target? A green long and thin, like an anteater’s tongue, flanked on each side by tufts of thick rough that quickly give way to deep bunkers.

The pin placement at the 15th hole Saturday at the Los Angeles Country Club was near the front of the green, 80 yards from the tee box, shorter even than any hole on the nearby charming Rancho Park 3-Par Golf Course.

But, oh my, looks can deceive. Land below the hole and the ball rolls off the green. Land too far above the hole and a treacherous downhill putt awaits. The shortest hole in U.S. Open history causes consternation to rival the cruelest blind par four or longest par five into a stiff wind.

The last two groups of the third round displayed four ways to make par on No. 15, coming fresh off the 628-yard par-five No. 14 and facing a gauntlet of three difficult holes to complete the round.

Rickie Fowler’s tee shot landed deep and to the right, but he executed a 53-foot lag putt at least 20 feet to the right of the pin and watched it curl around the top of the green, turn left like an IndyCar and leave him inside of four feet.

Rickie Fowler hits his tee shot on the par-three 15th hole during the second round June 16, 2023.

Rickie Fowler, hitting his tee shot on the 15th hole during the second round, parred the tricky par three Saturday and is tied with Wyndham Clark for the lead at 10 under.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Wyndham Clark, who is tied with Fowler for the tournament lead, and Rory McIlroy, who is one shot back, went conventional, leaving 23-foot putts that didn’t go in but also didn’t roll disastrously beyond the hole.

Xander Schauffele, inconsistent throughout a round of 73 that dropped him to five under for the tournament, had to putt from the top of an exaggerated mid-green bump that LACC members joke is the result of club founder Joseph Sartori being buried there in 1946. Schauffele didn’t flinch, leaving a tap-in for par.

“I need some help at this point now, with such a poor performance today,” Schauffele said. “I saw some guys like shooting 29 on the front, so it’s out there if you’re hitting the ball in the fairway. Just going to have to do something special, and going to need some help from up top probably.”

Wyndham Clark sinks a putt on the seventh hole at Los Angeles Country Club.

Wyndham Clark sinks a putt on the seventh hole green during the third round of the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club on Saturday.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

With warmer weather firming greens, birdies were scarce. Fowler, who made a U.S. Open-record 18 birdies the first two days, added only three more yet stayed at the top of the leaderboard along with Clark all day. Tom Kim shot the first 29 of the tournament on the front nine to tie a U.S. Open record and posted the day’s best score at 66, but is a distant three under entering Sunday.

Fowler took a two-shot lead into the last hole but the lead evaporated on the green. Clark birdied with a six-foot putt to finish one under for the day. Meanwhile, Fowler — whose putter had been on fire for three days — bogeyed the final hole after missing a putt inside five feet to finish with an even-par 70. He and Clark are 10 under.

“Had to accept some bogeys there in the round early on, but I feel like we did a good job of kind of staying present, moving forward,” Fowler said.

“Through three rounds we’re in the spot that we want to be in, and tomorrow is when the tournament starts.”

Looming large — as he has all year — is Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Scheffler finished the round with an eagle and a birdie to finish three behind Fowler and Clark at 67-68-68. He holed out from 196 yards on his second shot on No. 17.

“I saw where it landed and I thought it would funnel out onto the green and I’d have a look for birdie, and then you could see everybody as the noise started to kind of rise, got excited, and then they erupted, which is always nice when you’re standing back there in the fairway,” he said.

Scottie Scheffler hits from the eighth tee during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday.

Scottie Scheffler hits from the eighth tee during the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday.

(Matt York / Associated Press)

Scheffler has momentum, spending 29 consecutive weeks at No. 1 last year when he won the Masters. Fowler and Clark have never won a major and McIlroy hasn’t since 2014.

“The golf course definitely got a little bit trickier today than the first couple of days,” McIlroy said. “Felt like I played really smart, solid golf. Hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens. Sort of felt somewhat stress free out there, if you can ever call golf at a U.S. Open stress free.”

Fowler, who grew up in Murrieta, freely acknowledged that winning this particular U.S. Open would be especially meaningful.

“Obviously it would be huge, it would be great,” he said. “Especially being here in Southern California, having a lot of people, family and friends out here this week.

“We have a chance tomorrow. I mentioned out there that after going through the last few years, I’m not scared to fail. I’ve dealt with that. We’re just going to go have fun, continue to try to execute, leave it all out there, see where we stand on 18.”