Toledo, Ohio – Hale Irwin channeled his 1979 U.S. Open win en route to shooting his age in the third round of the U.S. Senior Open on Saturday. Jeff Sluman and Hal Sutton each recorded career-best U.S. Senior Open rounds, while Mark O’Meara matched his career championship low of two days.
With Inverness Club sitting ripe, the 60-player field combined for 33 sub-par rounds, obliterating the previous third-round record of 25. And of the 22 players sitting in 20th place or better through 54 holes, 19 shot under par.
And yet, for all of the low numbers, the field still lost ground to Olin Browne, who, with Sluman, authored the day’s low round of 65 and is putting his name into the 32-year-old championship’s record book.
The truth is I haven't been thinking about what I've been doing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to do, and that's the only thing that matters to me, said the matter-of-fact Browne.
What Browne has done, though, is notable. His 15-under-par 198 score is the championship’s lowest 54-hole total, bettering Simon Hobday’s previous low of 14-under 199 set in 1994 at Pinehurst No. 2.
O’Meara shot a 5-under 66 and is at 13-under 200. Sluman, Peter Senior, Joey Sindelar and Mark Calcavecchia are at 9-under 204. At 7-under 206, eight shots back of Browne, are Irwin, Jeff Roth and Michael Allen.
I'm in a great position right now, said Browne, 52, a three-time PGA Tour winner. I'm very pleased obviously with my overall performance this week, but there's work yet to be done, so I'm not too overwhelmed with what I've done. I'm more worried about what's happening in the future, which is tomorrow.
By the time Browne teed off in the final pairing with O’Meara on Saturday, the game was on. Red numbers were running rampant.
Sutton, whose 16 birdies are tied with Browne, O’Meara and John Huston for the field lead, posted one of the day’s early lows, a 5-under 66, and was in the clubhouse at 6-under 207.
I've been getting off the accelerator too much, so I was determined I was going to stay on the accelerator, said Sutton of the need to score low.
Sutton was closely followed by Irwin, who won the second of his three U.S. Opens at this venue 32 years ago. Irwin’s own 66 gave him the lowest score in a U.S. Senior Open by a player who shot his age.
I think it was a little reminiscent of 32 years ago and how I played on Saturday of the Open week in '79, Irwin said. I recall starting [the tournament] really poorly and having two really, really good middle rounds, and today was similar to one of those rounds in '79.
In those middle two rounds, Irwin shot 68-67 and won with an even-par 284 score.
Sluman totaled eight birdies on Saturday, the most of any player this week, and thought his round from tee to green may have been inferior to Friday’s even-par 71. Given how scores are trending this week, Sluman does not rule himself out of contention.
Any time the USGA gets involved it seems like the best players do rise to the top and have a chance to win, he said. Kind of hard to fluke it for four days and come out on top. But there's a lot of great players on top of the leaderboard, and I'm going to have to shoot a low number to have a chance tomorrow.
None of the players ahead of Sluman have won a U.S. Senior Open, either.
O’Meara, winner of the 1998 Masters and British Open, expressed no frustration in shooting 66 and falling farther behind Browne.
That's okay, he said. The way I look at it golf is a game where you're trying to do the best that you can personally do, hit good shots, you make a birdie.
I've always been a player that respects my fellow players out there. Olin's a friend. He's a very good player. He showed that out there today, and I know he'll be tough tomorrow because he hits it straight. I know he's a good iron player. Short game, he doesn't get too far ahead of himself, not too far behind, and he made the putts.
On Saturday, Browne played Inverness’ inward nine in 5-under 29, including birdies on the final two holes for the second successive round. He has played the second nine, statistically more difficult than the first nine, in 7 under for the championship and overall he has been solid.
He ranks tied for fourth in the field in fairways hit (37), second in putts (76) and tied for 21st in greens in regulation (38). Browne said he received a tip from Allen on the driving range earlier in the week about his setup and the advice has carried over to his entire game, especially on the greens.
I've really felt comfortable on the greens, and I think that's critical in this kind of a championship, especially on greens like this where even if you hit a good shot, sometimes you're going to be in a tough place, he said. Other than that, I’m just trying to hit as many quality golf shots as I can hit and not be too hysterical about it when I'm out there.
For three nights, Browne has gone to bed with the lead in the U.S. Senior Open. Twice he has responded to the charges put at him by the field. Sunday, though, he will be 18 holes away from his first major.
Every day is a different day, he said. You wake up, you feel good some days, you don't feel good other days. I'm hoping I feel great tomorrow and I come out and have a nice day.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA websites.