UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — It is initially overwhelming, but the more you play it, the less intimidating and more accessible it seems, the former United States Open champion Jim Furyk said. He was talking about Chambers Bay, which measured 7,637 yards on Saturday, but he could have been speaking of the PGA Tour.
On moving day, the former quarry, now a quirky United States Open course, provided an elevator ride up the leaderboard for a group of players with ample promise but no major prizes. By nightfall, the top 14 included two major winners (Jordan Spieth, a co-leader after 36 holes, and Louis Oosthuizen) and several others holding tickets for the best-player-never-to-have-never-won-a-major sweepstakes.
Spieth, the reigning Masters champion, carded a 71 to lead a Fab Four at the top of the leaderboard. He was joined by Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Branden Grace at four-under-par 206.
Johnson, the 54-hole leader at the 2010 United States Open, will have another chance on Sunday to close out a major. Grace, a six-time European Tour winner from South Africa, has won twice this year on the European Tour. Day, of Australia, is a two-time United States Open runner-up.
Lurking in the tall fescue grasses, ready to pounce should the leaders falter, are Shane Lowry of Ireland, Cameron Smith of Australia and the Americans J. B. Holmes, Brandt Snedeker and Patrick Reed. As a group, the seven have a combined 17 victories worldwide. They might not be household names, but they are tour-tested.
Johnson is seventh in the world, six spots behind Rory McIlroy, who is seeking his fifth major title. Day, a three-time PGA Tour winner, is ranked 10th. Snedeker, once ranked as high as fourth, is No. 30.
Day is 27, the same age as Grace. Spieth is 21. The eight players in red numbers after 54 holes average 27.4 years old. “There are a lot of good young players, guys who are carrying the torch for the younger generation and playing great right now,” Snedeker said.
McIlroy, 26, who carded a 70 in the third round after consecutive 72s, knows how formidable the competition is in front of him, which is why he gave an answer that sounded suspiciously like a concession speech.
“I’m glad my name is on the trophy at least once,” said McIlroy, the 2011 champion, “and I’ll try to make it twice at some point.”
At four over, McIlroy might not be out of it. Snedeker, at 34 the oldie among the goodies, has been around long enough to sense how the final round will play out.
“I’d be shocked if anything but two or three under par wins this thing by the end of the day tomorrow,” he said.
Snedeker has twice contended in the Masters, finishing third in 2008 and sixth in 2013. He has three top-10 finishes in this tournament, including a tie for ninth last year. He has bided his time and persevered through all kinds of adversity. Snedeker has exhibited the patience and the putting stroke that United States Open courses are set up to reward.
“Whoever wins this golf tournament will have done a great job of A, being patient, and B, of not letting the surroundings affect you,” Snedeker said.
He added: “There’s been a lot of distractions about the golf course, guys being upset about it, and rightfully so. At the end of the day, it’s the U.S. Open — you’ve got to put that behind you and play the best golf you can.”
Who has been more focused this week than Day, who tuned out the vertigo that caused him to collapse on the final hole of his second round and posted a 68 on Saturday?
At 19, Day won his first professional event in the United States, on the circuit that is a rung below the PGA Tour. It took him a while to find his bearings, to firmly believe that he belonged, amid the deep talent pool on the PGA Tour. But with time, he has developed a comfort level that has freed him to play his best golf. The same holds true for Lowry, 28; Holmes, 33; the 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie Tony Finau; and Grace, 27.
“I’ve been playing much better in the States, and everything has been building up to something like this,” Grace said.
He added: “Every golfer that teed it up this week, all our dreams are to win majors and to compete in the majors. So this is something I’ve dreamed of. This is something I’ve prepared for. This is something I’ve practiced for.”
Some people might look at the leaderboard and see a production sorely lacking in star power. Furyk sees a star-making vehicle for one deserving player.
“If Tiger wins when he’s in his prime, then it’s a reflection of a great course,” Furyk said, referring to Tiger Woods, the 14-time major winner who missed the cut. “If the guy that’s ranked 150th in the world wins, it’s not. I think it’s a real slap in the face to a guy that might not be ranked that well but had a good week and played well.”
With its fairways as hard as greens and its greens as brown and lumpy as potatoes, Chambers Bay does not fit the specifications of the golf-course classicist. Oakmont Country Club, it is not.
But in its water-conserving, environmentally conscious fashion, it might end up giving the golf world a champion, and a course, to define the sport for the next several years.
An earlier version of this article misstated the nationality of Shane Lowry. He is from Ireland, not Northern Ireland.