After leading by four shots at the start of the day, a disaster score from Dustin Johnson left him tied for the lead on three-over-par with Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau.
On a bizarre day that saw both Phil Mickelson send twitter in to a frenzy after he hit a moving ball deliberately to stop it going off the green and players criticising the USGA for the pin positions at Shinnecock, the leaderboard suffered a dramatic shift.
Dustin Johnson's four shot lead evaporated after he carded four bogeys and a double on his opening eight holes, before coming back in in one-over after three-putting on the slick 18th green to drop back to three-over par with a seven-over 77 in round three.
There was no doubt the early starters had a big advantage over the later groups. Only three players broke par on Saturday, and they all teed off before 11 a.m. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau were two of those players, teeing off more than four hours before the leaders.
They both had impressive four-under 66s in the softest conditions of the day, and found themselves steadily climbing the leaderboard from their couches throughout the afternoon until they eventually booked their places in Sunday's final group.
For defending champion Brooks Koepka, the difference in the morning and afternoon scoring didn't sit well: “Let’s put it this way. If they’d have shot 4 under this afternoon, it would probably have been the best round of golf anybody’s ever seen.”
Koepka's two-over 72 was one of the more successful rounds of the afternoon and included an outrageously long putt to save par on the 14th hole. He will tee off in the penultimate group with Dustin Johnson.
Meanwhile, Justin Rose (+4) and Henrik Stenson (+5) will keep their Saturday pairing for the final round as they occupy fifth and sixth spots heading in to the final round.
For quite a large part of the third round Stenson was the only player on the field under par but after a bogey on the 10th he moved back to level par and proceeded to limp home with three in a row from the 13th and a final dropped shot on the difficult 18th. And he, like many others, felt the USGA lost the golf course on the back nine.
“I think they lost this golf course today,” he said, “certainly on the back nine that we played.”
“I mean, the greens aren’t running perfectly smooth in the first place, but then in the afternoon, when they get crusty and baked, it’s like glass around the hole. You can barely touch some of the putts going downhill, and you could easily three or four-putt from three, four, five feet.”
Justin Rose, who at one stage was also under par for the tournament until he carded three bogeys in a row from the ninth, echoed his playing partner's thoughts.
“I haven’t seen a golf course change that quickly,” Rose said. “I was expecting it to be like this tomorrow.
"We’ve all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week.”