Dustin Johnson and a host of other players found themselves in a mess Saturday during the third round of the 118th U.S. Open. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Saturday was a particularly cruel U.S. Open day at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., where Dustin Johnson entered the third round with a four-shot lead, shot a 77 — often a score that can kill one’s chances at winning a tournament — and still was left in a four-way tie for the lead.

“I felt like I played pretty well,” said the No. 1 player in the world. “I felt like I hit a lot of great shots out there today. I had six or seven putts that I could have easily putted right off the green. That’s what it is. It’s the U.S. Open.”

Johnson’s remarks were among the more charitable offered after a day so brutal even Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, figuratively threw his hands in the air, agreeing with the assessment that the course played too tough while pledging to slow things down for Sunday’s final round.

That won’t help players such as Rickie Fowler, who started his day at 2 over par and in the leader board’s top five — then proceeded to shoot a 84.

“My first pitch on 10, where I made triple, I thought I hit a perfect pitch,” said Fowler, who was one of many players who might wish they had made the cut at five or six over par, rather than shoot a better score the first two days, because the advantage of going out in the morning Saturday was so large. Early risers Daniel Berger and Tony Finau both shot 66s.

“Some of the guys probably wish that they would have made the cut around 5 or 6 in a way. You are kind of taking away from what you did the first two days. Analyzed that way, it’s a little unfortunate.”

When asked if he’d ever played at a tougher venue, Fowler simply answered, “no.”

Then there’s the saga of Phil Mickelson, still seeking his first U.S. Open title at age 48. He won’t get it this year, not after an 81 on Saturday that marked the highest score he has ever shot in a U.S. Open and featured a moment that will go down in golf infamy, when he chased after a badly missed putt at No. 13 and struck it back in the direction of the hole while it was still moving.

“It’s a challenge you never see. I could have been going back and forth. I could still be out there,” Mickelson said while acknowledging he broke the rules in incurring a two-shot penalty that eventually led to a 10 on the hole. “Look, I don’t mean disrespect by anybody. I know it’s a two-shot penalty. At that time, I didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over. I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that. I just finally did.”

Uh, wow.

Mickelson’s attitude makes more sense upon learning this is the first U.S. Open since 2007 at Oakmont with zero players under par through 54 holes. Johnson, Berger, Finau and defending champion Brooks Koepka are all at 3-over 213, in a four-way tie for the lead. The Saturday scoring average was 75.087, which is actually nearly a shot lower than it was for Thursday’s round.

“If they’d have shot 4-under this afternoon, it would probably have been the best round of golf anybody’s ever seen,” Koepka pointed out, referring to Finau and Berger’s morning rounds.

Henrik Stenson, who is two shots behind the leaders after a relatively stellar 74, and described the greens in the afternoon as “crusty” and “baked” and “like glass around the hole,” summed up the ongoing antagonism between the players and the USGA by saying: “I don’t think they’re interested in listening to my remarks, or anyone else’s remarks, because then we would have seen maybe slightly different pin positions and setups over the years. So, it is what it is.”

Read more:

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Dustin Johnson might not be the thinking-man’s champion, and that’s just fine

At U.S. Open, 19th-century Shinnecock Hills takes on realities of 21st century

Thomas Boswell in Southampton, N.Y. contributed to this report.