U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Wild Sunday on Tap for Final Round at Del Paso June 27, 2015 | Sacramento, Calif. By Bill Fields

Kenny Perry's outward 28 on Saturday tied a U.S. Senior Open record and vaulted him into a tie for third place heading into the final round. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

At some championships, the plot is set by Saturday evening, and everyone wakes up Sunday morning with a pretty good idea who might win because there is clear separation between the leaders and the rest of the field.

After a day of charges and hiccups at Del Paso Country Club on Saturday, when an already-crowded leader board became further clogged with contenders, the 36th U.S. Senior Open is not one of those occasions.

Such is the logjam that it is hard to recall when more players – some of the best in senior golf, at that – have had such an unobstructed view of the lead after 54 holes. Bernhard Langer, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion, and Jeff Maggert are tied at 5-under 205 after each bogeyed the final hole, but they have lots of company near the top.

Eight players – Tom Watson, Colin Montgomerie, Kenny Perry, Fred Funk, Scott Dunlap, Grant Waite, Jimmy Carter and Woody Austin – trail by one stroke going into the final round. Hometown favorite Kevin Sutherland and Miguel Angel Jimenez are among six golfers another shot behind. Twenty-four players, exactly a third of those who made the 36-hole cut, are within five.

“It’s hard to make a ton of birdies, and it’s hard to not make a few bogeys,” said Sutherland, who grew up 300 yards from Del Paso and is a member of the club, with his theory of why the plot is so uncertain.

The outlier to Sutherland’s view was Perry, but even he couldn’t sustain the momentum of starting with six birdies over his first seven holes. Beginning the day seven strokes behind Watson, Maggert and Peter Fowler, Perry shot the championship’s low round, a 6-under 64. Starting on No. 10, he went out in 28, tying the U.S. Senior Open nine-hole scoring mark set by Tom Kite in the first round at Indianwood Golf & Country Club in 2012.

Striking the ball better than he had in his 70-72 start after remembering a swing key from his late instructor Norman Head to keep his right foot down at impact to stop pulling his drives, Perry had opportunities to go even lower.

“I hit a beautiful 4-iron to about 8 feet behind the hole on 18,” Perry said. “It was an easy putt, straight down the hill. I just knew I was going to make it. I pulled it a smidge, and it missed left. I was so sure and confident I was going to make that, it took the wind right out of my sails.”

Perry then missed a 4-foot birdie putt on his 10th hole en route to an even-par back nine. The 64 was the same score he shot two years ago during the third round of the Senior Open at Omaha Country Club after being 10 strokes behind after 36 holes. He followed that with a 63 to defeat Funk by five. It is certainly a handy memory to carry into the final round, even though Perry knows swing fixes are sometimes short-lived.

“It’s amazing how you can shoot one low round and the next day you wonder: ‘All I did was sleep. It’s only 24 hours later. What happened?’” Perry said. “But then again, you can have magic where you back it up, like I did in Omaha. It’s a great game. It’s humbling.”

No one could afford to be too cocky at Del Paso, where the fairways are generous, greens as smooth as a pool table, and the rough punishing.

“This week, [the USGA has] maintained a difficult but fair setup,” said Maggert, who bogeyed the 18th after having to lay up from the right rough. “The guys that are playing well – and obviously there are quite a few of them this week – have an opportunity to hang in there and have a chance to win.”

Hanging in there was the theme of the third round.

Langer, a two-time Masters champion who has five senior major titles among his 24 career Champions Tour victories, made par on the third through 10th holes before making three straight birdies, including a 15-footer on the difficult 13th hole that got him to 6 under. With regular caddie Terry Holt back on his bag after missing the first two rounds with an infected insect bite, Langer stayed at that figure until he drove into the right rough on the 18th hole. His 3-hybrid approach from 214 yards came up short, and he missed an 8-foot par putt.

If Langer prevails, it likely won’t be with the six-shot margin he enjoyed in winning this year’s Constellation Senior Players or the Champions Tour record 13-stroke victory in the 2014 Senior British Open. It won’t be like the mano-a-mano situation Langer had with Fred Couples in the 2010 U.S. Senior Open at Sahalee Country Club.

“I’ve been in all sorts of scenarios over the 40 years I’ve been a professional, so it really doesn’t matter,” Langer said. “Basically, you’re always playing against the golf course to start off anyway, and only the last few holes could come down to a duel. It could be you just have to play great golf because there are still five or six guys in the hunt.”

Watson, the extremely popular eight-time major champion and three-time Senior Open runner-up, remained in the picture with a 1-over 71 that was a mixture of the sublime and sloppy.

After missing the green badly at the par-4 third, Watson, 65, hit a gem of a pitch from about 25 yards from difficult rough to 3 feet from the flagstick.

“I told Ox [caddie Neil Oxman] that was my best pitch of the year,” Watson said. “That was really, really good. I was against the grain in that long grass, so I had to hit it harder than I wanted to. It came out perfectly.”

Watson’s putter betrayed him on Nos. 7 and 8, where he missed putts of 4 and 5 feet for par. But his bogey-free back nine included par-saving putts of 12 and 20 feet on the last two holes, the latter a putt with what Watson described as having “a big old break” to it.

“It was hanging in, that was what it was,” Watson said of his round. “There are some tools missing from my toolbox. The longer irons, I’m not hitting them very well. The driver’s been my friend. That’s been the key. If I keep driving the ball in the fairway every hole, I’ll have a shot at it.”

Along with many others, Watson will start the final round with a great chance.

“Usually, I am a leader board watcher,” said Funk. “Most of the time, I’ll watch and see what’s going on. You hear a roar, and you want to know who’s doing it.”

On Sunday, there will be more than the usual number of suspects.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.