The toughest test in golf met one tough player Saturday at the US Open.
Jason Day had every reason to withdraw after he collapsed on the final hole of his second round. He says he thought about quitting three times.
"That was the greatest round I've ever watched," said Colin Swatton, his caddie and longtime coach, who whispered words of encouragement along the hilly terrain of Chambers Bay. "I said, 'You've got the heart of a lion. You get to show the world today you get to be the greatest you can be and look, let's do it.' And he just put his head down and kept walking, one foot in front of the other. It was pretty impressive."
And he triumphed.
With three birdies on the last four holes, Day staggered off the course with a 2-under 68 and his name atop the leaderboard. He was part of a four-way tie with Masters champion Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, and Branden Grace of South Africa.
One day after his collapse, Day was standing taller than ever – and now he gets to play in the final group of a major for the first time.
All it took was a performance that brought to mind Ken Venturi winning the US Open at Congressional in 1964 with a 36-hole final while suffering from heat exhaustion, and Tiger Woods winning the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 with a broken left leg.
Day still has one day to go and a course that is getting faster and scarier by the day. And he has plenty of company.
Spieth had four three-putts, missed birdie chances inside 12 feet on the last three holes and still wound up in a tie for the lead with a 71 as he tries to become only the fourth player since 1960 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. The others were Woods (2002), Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Arnold Palmer (1960).
"I didn't have my best stuff today but still tied for the lead, and I've had my best stuff at times this week, and I'm pretty sure I know where it is and how to get it tomorrow and get ready to go," Spieth said.
Johnson gets a fourth shot at his first major. He also wasted good birdie chances with his power â a tee shot that landed on the front of the green at the 372-yard 16th hole (three-putt par) and a big drive on the par-5 18th. He hit 3-iron into a bunker and made par for a 70.
Johnson also was in position to win the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and the 2011 British Open.
"I've been in the situation a few times, so I know how to handle myself," he said. "I know what it takes to get it done. And tomorrow I just need to go out there and focus one shot at a time. And we'll see what happens."
Grace overcame a rough patch in the middle of his round â three bogeys in five holes â and shot a 70. The leaders were at 4-under 206.
Day chose not to speak to the media out of sheer exhaustion. He offered a few comments to a USGA official, and then headed to his motor home to lie down.
"I didn't feel that great coming out early," said Day, who dropped two shots in his opening four holes to fall as many as seven shots behind at one point.
He said it was worse than the vertigo he suffered last year at Firestone that caused him to withdraw. This time, he kept playing.
"I think the goal was just to go through today and see how it goes," he said.
For everyone else, it was a matter of hanging on.
Spieth holed a pair of 35-foot birdie putts early and stretched his lead to three shots until he gave them back with a pair of three-putts, slapping his knee at the miscues.
"Just need to limit the mistakes tomorrow," he said.
Johnson built a two-shot lead early on the back nine, only to give it back with a double bogey on the 13th hole with a 7-iron into the bunker and three putts. It was his only bad swing of the day. Johnson hit all 14 fairways.
Louis Oosthuizen, meanwhile, set himself up for a shot at US Open history. No one since World War II has ever shot 77 in the first round of the US Open and gone on to win. Oosthuizen was part of that horror show with Tiger Woods (80) and Rickie Fowler (81) in the opening round. He figured he would be watching the weekend at his home in Florida. Instead, he shot 66 to make the cut, and the South African shot another 66 on Saturday and was at 1-under 209.
Oosthuizen was joined by Cameron Smith of Australia (69), Shane Lowry of Ireland (70) and J.B. Holmes (71). No one else was under par, through 14 players were separated by five shots going into Sunday.