By Steve Keating
ERIN, Wisconsin (Reuters) - After days of being humbled, Erin Hills turned nasty for the U.S. Open's final round on Sunday as heavy winds pummeled the layout, adding an intriguing wrinkle to the year's second major.
American Brian Harman starts the final round at the links-style course sitting alone atop a crowded leaderboard one shot clear of Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Englishman Tommy Fleetwood. He no doubt will be watching the weather as much as looking over his shoulder as his 2:54 CT (1954 GMT) tee time approaches.
Left defenceless by rain soften greens and calm conditions the U.S. Open, long regarded as the toughest test, was made to look easy through the opening three rounds as golfers attacked the pins with bravado in smashing scoring records.
Thomas rocketed into contention on Saturday, carding a nine-under 63, the best round at a U.S. Open in relation to par that also equalled the lowest numerical score in any major.
Going into Sunday five players had carded rounds of seven-under or less, the most ever in the U.S. Open's 117-year history while Canadian Adam Hadwin fired off six consecutive birdies in Thursday's opening round to equal another mark.
But birdies will be harder to come by on Sunday with winds gusting from 25-30 mph (40-48 kph), bending flag sticks and moving balls over hardening greens.
"It looks as though the weather conditions are going to be a lot more challenging today at Erin Hills," said Tom Kite, who shot an even-par 72 in howling winds in the final round at Pebble Beach to win the 1992 U.S. Open. "I don’t see it turning into a situation that gets out of control, like people saw in 1992.
"Even though it will be difficult, I don’t anticipate this being a bloodletting."
The last six majors have produced six first-time champions and that trend looks set to continue with the leaderboard dominated by mostly unheralded names.
Six players start the final round within three shots of the lead, all eyeing their first major. In fact you have to look down to 17th place on the leaderboard before you find a major winner in South African Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion.
But the frontrunners bring legitimate credentials to a major showdown.
Harman, bidding to become the first left-hander to win a U.S. Open, is a winner on the PGA Tour this year while Thomas is the world number 13, a three-time winner this season and a member of the exclusive ‘59’ club after breaking 60 at the Sony Open this year.
Fleetwood picked up a victory in Abu Dhabi on the European Tour while Rickie Fowler, who will start two behind the pacesetter, is widely regarded as the current best golfer not to have won a major.
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(Editing by Gene Cherry)