EDMOND, Okla. – Of the possible outcomes from Saturday’s third round of the 35th U.S. Senior Open Championship, Gene Sauers seizing a three-stroke lead over the strong group clustered near the top of the leader board was among the unlikeliest.
And yet, that’s where the championship stands after 54 holes over demanding Oak Tree National, which yielded only three under-par rounds on Saturday. That measly total – among the group of 66 players who made the halfway cut – tied the lowest number of under-par third rounds in the championship’s history (1998, Riviera Country Club).
Sauers birdied two of his final three holes to finish off one of those rare rounds, a 3-under 68, and break from a pack of four players. Sauers holds the 54-hole lead in a major championship for the second time in his career, having led the 1992 PGA Championship before finishing in a tie for second behind Nick Price.
Several players with more impressive resumes in majors failed to keep pace with Sauers, including fellow competitor Bernhard Langer, who is known for his grinding, consistent play that seems built for major championships. Langer, a three-time winner on the Champions Tour in 2014 and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open winner, edged into a share of the lead midway through the inward nine on Saturday. But a couple of short missed putts left him at even-par 71 for the day and three strokes out of the lead, in a tie for second with Scott Dunlap.
I felt I played better golf today, hit a lot of quality shots, said Langer. I left myself more opportunities and the putter got kind of cold on the back nine. I think I had three, four lip-outs in a row there, and you can’t get those back.
Langer was paired with Sauers, and the pair will play together again on Sunday, starting at 12:40.
He hung in there very well, said Langer of Sauers. He bogeyed the first hole, hitting a couple of poor shots and was a little shaky early, but then he settled down and played very solid golf. He deserves to be in the lead right now.
Colin Montgomerie, who earned the first major victory of his long career at the Senior PGA Championship in May, held the lead through two days here, thanks to a 65-71 start. He birdied two of his first three holes on Saturday to extend his one-stroke lead to four, and at 8 under, it appeared he might be poised to run away from the field.
However, Montgomerie began to struggle to hit fairways, leading to a paltry six greens in regulation for the day and six bogeys against just one more birdie. His 3-over 74 left him in solo fourth place.
I got off to a great start, and then I didn’t hit a green for a while, said the 51-year-old Scotsman. In the middle of the round, I also didn’t hit fairways.
Montgomerie will play in the second-to-last grouping on Sunday with Scott Dunlap, his fellow competitor from Saturday. Dunlap steadied himself after a couple of early bogeys, and helped by a 65-foot birdie putt on No. 11, carded a 1-over 72 to earn a share of second with Langer.
A trio of players – Vijay Singh, Jeff Sluman and Marco Dawson – stand at 2-under 211, one stroke behind Montgomerie in a tie for fifth. Dawson’s see-saw ride continued, as he posted a 2-under-par round of 69 to follow scores of 66-76. He got all the way to 5 under par and into a share of the lead before bogeying his final three holes. Singh (71) finished the day where he started, while Sluman, winner of the 1988 PGA here, carded a 1-over 72.
The only other under-par score was logged by Peter Senior, of Australia, who matched Sauers’ 68 and moved from a tie for 33rd at the start of the day into solo 10th place at 1-over 214, just behind Woody Austin (71-213) and David Frost (71-213).
When Round 4 begins, the formula will be simple for those in the hunt – it’s the execution itself that will be challenging:
Concentrate on the fairways and greens, said Sauers. You got to hit fairways here or you’re not going to have any chance of holding the greens at all.
I will try to do what I did on Thursday with a 65, said Montgomerie. If I can do it on Thursday, I can do it on Sunday.
It certainly helps to have been in this position a number of times, said Langer. I think the weather is the hardest part. It’s over 100 degrees and you’re walking up and down the hills. It’s taxing. It’s tough.
It’s a major championship, and as Montgomerie said on Thursday, The rewards are so great at the end of it that you keep going, believe me.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.