OMAHA, Neb. – Michael Allen knew it would be difficult to back up his brilliant second-round 63 in Saturday’s third round of the 2013 U.S. Senior Open.
What he was hoping not to do was back up, period.
On a day when nearly half the field was posting red numbers at Omaha Country Club – including a pair of 64s by Kenny Perry and Corey Pavin – Allen went into reverse. What had been a championship-record five-stroke lead for 36 holes was trimmed to two after Allen carded a 2-over-par 72 on the 6,627-yard layout for a 54-hole total of 8-under 202.
There are now two clear pursuers in Allen’s rearview mirror. And they’re players who know how to close out senior major championships.
Perry, who won the Constellation Senior Players Championship two weeks ago, posted his eighth sub-70 score in his last 10 rounds on the Champions Tour, while Fred Funk, the 2009 U.S. Senior Open champion, registered consecutive birdies on 17 and 18 to complete a 3-under 67.
“He could have shot 67 or 66 today and just said, ‘See you later guys,’ but he didn’t,” said Funk of the front-running Allen. “[He] put everybody back in the game, or put a lot of guys back in the game.”
Allen, the 2009 Senior PGA champion, will be joined in Sunday’s final pairing by Perry, while Funk is paired with Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champion.
Rocco Mediate, the 2008 U.S. Open runner-up who carded a 67 on Friday to get into the final group, struggled to a 2-over 72 and is six back at 207.
Chien Soon Lu (65), Tom Pernice Jr. (65), Chris Williams (66), Steve Pate (67), John Riegger (67), Peter Fowler (68), Mark O’Meara (70), Tom Lehman (70) and Jeff Sluman (72) make up the nine players who share sixth position at 2-under 208.
In all, 27 of the 64 players who made the cut bettered par on Saturday, when the scoring average was 70.3, nearly four strokes lower than Friday’s second round.
Course familiarity and softer-than-normal conditions – the greens have been hand-watered more than usual due to the unrelenting heat – have given the world’s best senior players the chance to be more aggressive.
Perry, Funk and Pavin certainly took advantage.
“I had a phenomenal day,” said Perry, who made a slight adjustment with his swing on the driving range, which kept his right-to-left tee shots from veering too far left. “It could have been a 59 out there.
“I am so happy. I achieved my goal. I’ve gotten close enough to him to where if I play a good round [on Sunday] I’ve got a good shot at this thing.”
Perry overpowered Omaha Country Club in the third round, hitting 15 of 18 greens and giving himself plenty of birdie chances. Even from the rough, Perry, who found only six of 13 fairways, managed to get several of his approach shots to stay on the putting surfaces.
Perry birdied his first two holes before making a three-putt bogey at the third. He then stuffed a 9-iron approach at the par-5 sixth to a foot for a tap-in eagle. He gave one shot back at No. 7, but birdied Nos. 9 and 10 to reach four under for the championship. He was the only player in the field to make a 3 at the 501-yard, par-4 10th.
He missed chances to birdie the short 13th hole and par-5 14th holes, but he converted a 15-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th and nearly drove the green at the 297-yard 17th, leading to a tap-in birdie.
“Normally, U.S. Open [setups] are firm and fast,” said Perry. “If you’re in the rough, you can’t control it. It will go over the green. These greens will hold shots, even out of the rough. If you get it in the fairway, you can attack this golf course. That was the key for me today. I hit a lot of fairways.”
Funk had six birdies, including all three par-5s, to offset a bogey at eight and a double-bogey 6 at the 10th. That was a vast improvement over Friday’s round, when he failed to birdie any of the par-5s and bogeyed No. 6 due to a poor approach and ensuing three-putt.
“I discovered something on the range,” said Perry. “I narrowed my stance … and as I got into the longer stuff, I kept my feet narrow, and all of a sudden I was hitting the ball even more solid. I did it all the way through the driver. I was really hitting the driver solid today. I felt really good about that.”
Bothered by a sore neck prior to Friday’s second round, Allen said had it not been for the on-site therapist, he would have been forced to withdraw. Given acupuncture on Friday, Allen nearly broke the 18-hole Senior Open record.
While Allen wasn’t able to duplicate the results, he still enters the final round with a lead, which he would have taken at the start of the competition.
“Today I hit a few more bad shots than good [ones], but I mean it’s fun,” said Allen, a four-time winner on the Champions Tour. “It’s nice to be in the lead. If you would have given me a two-shot lead to start the week, I would have been pretty thrilled to have it.”
Allen did get off to a strong start with a birdie at the par-5 second, but a three-putt bogey at the fourth portended his day. He suffered back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 10 and 11, but got both strokes back with consecutive birdies at 13 and 14, the latter a par 5. He has played the par 5s in nine under par this week with two eagles.
A poor 7-iron tee shot at the par-3 16th led to a bogey, and his drive on 18 found the left rough. When his second failed to crawl up the hill, Allen was left with a challenging pitch to get up and down for par.
“I thought I hit a good [20-foot] putt there,” said Allen. “That was a good one. On all my bogeys, I hit pretty good putts except for 16.”
Perry was asked if he would need another 64 or 65 to win.
He smiled for a moment before saying, “I hope not. I hope I don’t have to shoot another one of those rounds. But if you do shoot that round … you’ll win the golf tournament.”
Now that’s some forward thinking.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.