PINEHURST — Martin Kaymer played near flawless golf for 36 holes.
Kaymer wasn’t at his best for the next 18, but that was fine because he only dropped one shot to the field Saturday afternoon.
Kaymer followed up a pair of 5-under 65s with a 2-over 72 to fall to 8 under par overall for the tournament. He will take a 5-shot lead into Sunday’s final round of the 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
“Well, it’s still a good round. Two-over par is not as bad as it looks on the scorecard, I think,” Kaymer said. “A little bit of an up-and-down start. A couple of early bogeys and then the eagle that brought me back to level par and then putted off the green. So a lot of things were happening today. But I think I kept it very well together, even though I didn’t hit as many great shots as yesterday and Thursday. But overall it’s a decent round.”
Kaymer believed the turning point in his day came on the par-4 fourth hole. He pulled his tee shot to the left and into the native grass. His ball came to rest next to a pile of pine straw. After a discussion with USGA scoring officials, Kaymer elected to take an unplayable lie and recovered to make a bogey.
“Well, to be honest, the main problem was I didn’t really understand the English that the referees were talking. I told my caddie, you have to take over here, because I don’t know those words that he was saying,” Kaymer said. “So it was a wash, waste, I don’t know, dirt area, something like that. But bottom line was I didn’t get a drop, but I didn’t have a shot.
“I needed to take a drop there. It was a very big putt to make that bogey, because if you make double it’s a tough one. But to lose only one on a hole like this, where it’s almost a par 5 today, it’s okay.”
Kaymer, who won the 2010 PGA Championship and this year’s Players Championship, will sleep on the U.S. Open lead for the third straight night. He said he is excited to have the chance to add a second major title to his resume.
“I’m looking forward to see how I feel, how I react to certain situations,” Kaymer said. “Anything can happen. I can lead by seven or eight shots after nine holes. I can be down to all square. So it will be an exciting round. For me, personally, it will be interesting how I handle it.”
After being receptive to low scoring for the first two days, Pinehurst No. 2 changed dramatically in the third round. The course and the greens became firmer and faster, and scores shot up.
The field’s scoring average was 73.23 on Thursday and 72.89 on Friday. On Saturday, the average score jumped to 73.82 and only two players — Erik Compton and Rickie Fowler — were able to get into red numbers.
Fowler used his putter to vault himself into contention. He led the field by averaging 1.33 putts per hole to finish with a 3-under 67. He is also at 3-under for the tournament.
Fowler had five birdies and two bogeys in the third round.
“Very, very pleased with today’s work,” Fowler said. “Swing-wise, I didn’t drive it very well today but kept it in play and stayed out of trouble when I could. Kind of minimized mistakes when I was in trouble, and actually made some good swings in bad spots.”
Compton matched Fowler’s 67 for low round of the day. Compton had an eagle on the par 5 fifth, five birdies and four bogeys. Compton earned the last spot from the Columbus, Ohio qualifier in a playoff when five players were battling for three spots. This is the second golf major Compton has played in during his career, missing the cut in the 2010 U.S. Open. This time around he is enjoying every moment of it.
“I’ve been playing really very solid this year,” Compton said. “And I went back to hitting a little bit more of a bleeder off of the tee. And also with the iron shots, I was hitting them very straight, hitting my targets. I think the first ten holes, I didn’t really miss my target. I made that nice eagle on the 5th hole, hit driver to 4-iron there. And kind of a momentum killer, I missed a short one on 5 that horseshoed back at me. I just kind of laughed it off and made a great birdie on 7. And then to birdie 10, make a bomb on 11, I knew something special was happening. You know, it was just a good, solid day. Just really, really happy to be here. I’m taking really tight lines off the tee and swinging hard. When you’re doing that, it’s pretty fun.
Only three other players are under par for the tournament — Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson are 2-under and Brandt Snedeker is 1-under.
Several players weren’t surprised to see the USGA attempt to pull scores down Saturday and Kenny Perry called it one of the most challenging rounds he has played.
“I tell you what, it’s, it was a golf course of 18 of the toughest pins I’ve ever seen. It was probably the hardest setup I’ve ever experienced in a major championship,” Perry said. “Meaning that you had to be spot on with your irons, there was no room for error, right, left, you had to basically kind of play short and up to everything.”
Phil Mickelson, who is vying to complete the personal Grand Slam, shot a 2-over 72 and is now 5-over for the tournament. He echoed Perry’s beliefs about the pin placements.
“The pins are so close to the edges that if it went sometimes four to six feet on that one side, it was down in a bad spot,” Mickelson said. “So it was tough. It was a tough day to try to go low.”
Mickelson didn’t see a problem for USGA officials trying to pull scores back down after easier conditions in the opening two rounds.
“Given the way the first two days played, I think that you want to have a little bit more of a sterner test,” Mickelson said. “I think they probably could have put some of it in the first two days, where there were maybe some tougher pins. But it’s tough to do that when you have 156 guys trying to get through and you could be playing back and forth on some of the greens and it could just take forever. So I think it’s good.”
Last year’s U.S. Open champion, Justin Rose, thought he lost several unnecessary strokes on the course.
“I was surprised when I got in the scorer’s tent and that said 70 was tied for the lowest score today so far,” Rose said. “That’s a lot of golf that’s been played. I teed off at 1:13 today. That was kind of surprising. I felt like I had an opportunity to go low. I felt like a squandered a lot of shots out there. Every bogey I made was a cheap give away. That’s why I didn’t really realize how tough the course was playing.”
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.