Checking on the Contenders & Why No. 9 Just Works

Our recap from Saturday at the 2024 U.S. Open


This piece originally appeared in the Fried Egg Golf newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For more coverage of the U.S. Open, visit our U.S. Open hub here.

Checking on the Contenders

By Joseph LaMagna

The U.S. Open stage is set for either a runaway victory from one of golf’s most electrifying players or one of the most thrilling final rounds in recent major championship history.

Bryson DeChambeau leads Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay, and Matthieu Pavon by three shots. Here’s what is at stake tomorrow for most within reach of the trophy.

Bryson DeChambeau accepts his newfound adulation from fans at Pinehurst No. 2 (Fried Egg Golf)

Bryson DeChambeau –  Holding his first 54-hole lead in a major championship, Bryson DeChambeau has the golf tournament firmly within his grasp entering Sunday. With two top 10s in majors so far in 2024, Bryson has already proven that he’s one of the top handful of players in the world right now. With a win tomorrow, DeChambeau would earn his second major championship trophy and ascend to a new stature within the professional ranks. A win at Pinehurst No. 2 to accompany his U.S. Open win at Winged Foot would also prove DeChambeau’s ability to win on a completely different type of major championship setup, a feather in the cap of one of golf’s biggest personalities.

Rory McIlroy – Only one golfer stands between Rory McIlroy and his first major championship win in a decade. McIlroy has experienced his fair share of close calls in majors over the past ten years, most notably last year’s U.S. Open at LACC. He tees off in the penultimate group just three shots back, his best chance of winning a major championship on a Sunday in twelve months. A McIlroy win would make tomorrow one of the most memorable major championship Sundays in the 21st century.

Rory McIlroy mid-round on Saturday at the U.S. Open (Fried Egg Golf)

Patrick Cantlay – Teeing it up alongside McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay will be looking to end his status as one of the best golfers in the world without a major win. It’s been a down year for Cantlay so far in 2024, with just one top-20 finish over his last seven individual starts. A win tomorrow would drastically alter the way people think about Cantlay’s career.

Matthieu Pavon – The 31-year-old Frenchman burst onto the mainstream golf scene in January with a win at the Farmers Insurance Open following a successful 2023 season on the DP World Tour. He’s had his ups and downs since winning at Torrey Pines, but a T-12 at the Masters shows Pavon has the game to string together solid performances at the highest level. With a win tomorrow, he’d be the first French golfer to win a men’s major championship since 1907.

The ninth green at Pinehurst No. 2 (Fried Egg Golf)

The Brilliance of No. 9

By Joseph LaMagna

Leading up to and throughout this week, it’s been said that Pinehurst No. 2 doesn’t necessarily have a best or signature hole. On the other side, it’s also hard to identify the worst hole on the course. Every hole stands on its own, combining to provide a stiff but thrilling test for both the best players in the world and the everyday golfer.

Though I’m hesitant to break the mold and declare a best hole, I have a hard time finding a finer hole than the par-3 ninth. The magnificence of the ninth hole, and in particular today’s front-right pin location, is that there is a very fine line between giving yourself a look at birdie and finding yourself in grave danger. Shots that come up short and right fall down a severe downslope, leaving a difficult up and down. Shots that miss left leave a brutally delicate second shot, one in which you risk going back over the front-right edge of the green if it gets away from you.

During Saturday’s round, Tony Finau landed his short iron approach shot in the perfect spot, about 25 feet left of the flag onto the correct side of the ridge bisecting the green. It landed softly before riding the contour back down towards the hole and settling seven feet away. Rory McIlroy then stepped up and hit nearly an identical shot, landing his approach close to Finau’s, and his shot settled eight feet from the cup. Two of golf’s preeminent iron players walked off the seventh with two of the seven birdies carded on the hole all day.

In the very next group, Patrick Cantlay pulled his iron shot just a bit left and into the greenside bunker, leaving a treacherous shot up and over the same contour that Finau and McIlroy had just used to make birdie. He nearly found another greenside bunker with his second shot before making a solid up and down for bogey. His playing partner Thomas Detry came up short left and in the bunker. He would also go on to make bogey.

ShotLink scoring dispersion data for No. 9 at Pinehurst No. 2 (Fried Egg Golf)

In practically identical conditions, four tournament contenders took similar lines. Two walked off the hole with birdies, and two walked off the hole with bogeys. The difference between the scores wasn’t a lucky bounce or a gust of wind, but rather how well each iron shot was struck.

On the ninth hole, much like every other hole on this golf course, the margin between reward and disaster is both thin and doable, a testament to both the brilliance of the design and the quality of the USGA’s setup. Precision has been rewarded this week at Pinehurst No. 2.

Other Saturday Notes

Collin Morikawa served early notice that a low score was on offer Saturday. His bogey-free 66 was quite impressive, and Morikawa is playing some of the best golf in the world in recent weeks. It might not be enough for him to contend tomorrow, but the Open is coming up soon.

Neal Shipley came out on fire. The Ohio State amateur made five birdies in his first ten holes, and while he also had a pair of bogeys, it looked like he could be making a real move. Things fell off quickly, though, as they tend to do at a U.S. Open. Shipley shot 38 on the back, including a penalty stroke when his ball moved on the 13th hole.

The USGA moved tees up on the third hole in an attempt to entice players to go for the par 4 from the tee. Corey Conners bit on that temptation, driving the green and making eagle. It was the only eagle of the day, and the hole only conceded 17 birdies, too.

J.T. Poston delivered one of the most aesthetically pleasing golf shots: the short pitch and dunk. The rhythm of this is perfect. No notes.

Bless Tony Finau for pulling putter from the native area behind the green on 10. It didn’t work out at first, but he still salvaged par. It’s so fun watching players have to and/or choose to try stuff.

Unfortunately for Finau, he attempted another long putt from off the green on 13 that didn’t go as well. He ended up putting through into a bunker, then hitting his bunker shot back through the green again, resulting in triple. That NBC cut to Playing Through at the end of a meltdown from one of the leaders really added insult to injury.

Ludvig also fell apart in shockingly similar fashion to Finau at the thirteenth, going from around the green to the bunker, then back to the front of the green. He also made triple.

Akshay Bhatia has a game designed to compete on layouts like Pinehurst No. 2. The creative lefty pulled another ridiculous shot out of his bag today, holing a beautiful pitch-and-run shot from over 80 feet for birdie. He seemingly hits shots like these weekly.

This piece originally appeared in the Fried Egg Golf newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For more coverage of the U.S. Open, visit our U.S. Open hub here.