SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - Dustin Johnson suffered a third round collapse to fall into a four-way tie at the top of the U.S. Open leaderboard with fellow Americans Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau at an unforgiving Shinnecock Hills on Saturday.
Overnight leader Johnson carded a seven-over-par 77 but still found himself sharing the lead after conditions grew increasingly brutal for the late starters as Koepka set himself up for a shot at successfully defending his title.
Johnson, who started his round on four-under for the tournament, steadied himself after squandering a four-shot advantage on the front nine as the field bunched up like rush hour traffic on the nearby Long Island Expressway.
The 2016 champion negotiated the back nine in one-over on a day when strong winds and low humidity baked the greens dry and left a couple of them on the verge of being unplayable.
Sitting at three-over 213, Americans Johnson, Koepka (72), Daniel Berger (66) and Tony Finau (66) led Englishman Justin Rose (73) by one stroke, and Swede Henrik Stenson (74) by two.
“I didn’t feel like I played badly at all,” said Johnson, who rated his 77 as the best seven-over round of his career.
“Seven-over usually is a terrible score, but with the greens the way they got this afternoon, they were very, very difficult.
“I felt like I hit a lot of great shots out there today. Need to putt a little better tomorrow.”
Koepka oozed confidence over his chances of becoming the first since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 to win consecutive titles.
“There’s nobody more confident,” he told reporters. “My game’s in a good spot. I feel you’ve got to take it (the title) from me to be honest.”
Berger and Finau beat the worst of the conditions, finishing before the leaders had even teed off.
Few could have predicted at the start of the day that Berger and Finau would find themselves in the final pairing on Sunday.
“As the day went on it continued to get more tough,” said two-times PGA Tour winner Berger, who noticed the course starting to become more difficult on about the 12th hole.
“It started to get a lot firmer and faster,” he said. “The speed of the greens picked up. It’s going to be tough (for the leaders).”
Little did he realise how true that would be.
Finau soon matched Berger’s 66.
“I feel my game is made for championship golf,” said the extremely long-hitting Finau, who believes he is developing a complete, all-round game.
“Today I needed something special to happen to have an outside chance. Whether I do or not I’m happy with the day.”
Rose putted like a magician to be only one shot from the lead and give himself a chance of adding to his 2013 title.
“It’s a very condensed leaderboard,” he said. “It’s going to take a special round tomorrow, but at least you have the opportunity.”
Stenson also stayed intact despite taking 40 strokes coming home.
“I left a few coming home, but everyone else was struggling too, I think,” he said.
Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by John O'Brien