Triplett, Perry Race Ahead of the Rest on Moving Day July 1, 2017 | PEABODY, MASS. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Kirk Triplett continued his strong play at Salem Country Club by setting a new 54-hole scoring record, though Kenny Perry is right on his heels. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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After Kenny Perry knocked in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 16th green at Salem Country Club to pull even with fellow competitor Kirk Triplett at 15 under par, Triplett jokingly told the crowd, “Kenny Perry is not a very nice man.”

Triplett proceeded to miss his own birdie attempt from 3 feet, leaving the players tied through 16 holes. It was a moment that highlighted the match-play feel of the final pairing of Round 3 of the 38th U.S. Senior Open Championship on Saturday, as Triplett and Perry distanced themselves from the rest of the field going into Sunday’s fourth round.

The longtime competitors and friends are separated by one stroke as their play eclipsed the 54-hole scoring record for the championship. Triplett (195) and Perry (196) bettered Olin Browne’s total of 198 from 2011 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, when Browne went on to defeat Mark O’Meara by three strokes. Tied for the top at 11-under 129 entering the day, Triplett is six strokes better than third-place Brandt Jobe, and only four other players are within 10 strokes of him.

Jobe came out of nowhere on Saturday, leaping from 29th place to solo third with a record-tying round of 8-under 62. And while Triplett and Perry continued to climb toward their record three-round totals, their closest pursuers at the start of the day fell back. They were the only players among the final 14 on the course Saturday to break par. The other dozen players combined to shoot 24 over par.

“Kirk is down the middle, he’s very controlled, and he doesn’t get flustered,” said Perry, 56, of Franklin, Ky., the 2013 Senior Open champion. “He’s going to be a tough guy to beat because he doesn’t make too many mistakes.”

Triplett’s short missed birdie try on No. 16 might be considered a mistake, but he parred Nos. 17 and 18 (the third- and second-toughest for the week, respectively) to complete matching nines of 33 for a 4-under 66. Perry’s lone mistake on the incoming nine came on his final approach shot, when he found himself between clubs and tugged a 6-iron well left of the green. He was hard-pressed to make bogey after running his pitch shot through the green and ended the day 34-33–67.

“I’ve got my work cut out tomorrow,” said Perry. “I’ve got to hit it a little better. I’ve got to keep making bombs and – like I did on 16 – flip the score a little bit on him. Y’all saw his chipping ability today. If he misses the green, he chips it in or gets it pretty close.”

After Perry inched ahead with a birdie on the par-3 fifth hole, Triplett holed a bunker shot for an eagle on the 523-yard, par-5 sixth. Perry birdied the hole to pull himself even again at 13 under, but Triplett was off again with back-to-back birdies on Nos. 9 and 10.

“I just grinded it out today,” Perry admitted. “I didn’t feel like I had a lot going on out there, but I did make a couple [of putts]. Hopefully, I can kind of catch fire a little earlier in the round tomorrow and play nicely all day.”

Perry made a 28-foot birdie on the par-3 12th, going to school on the line after Triplett came up short from a foot farther away.

“It felt a little bit like match play,” said Perry. “We don’t need Brandt Jobe to shoot 62 again, I can tell you that.”

With six birdies coming in, Jobe became the third player to shoot 29 for nine holes in U.S. Senior Open history, one off the record of 28 shared by Tom Kite (2012) and Perry (2015).

“I played solid the first two days, I just didn’t give myself a lot of opportunities,” said Jobe, 51, who won his first PGA Tour Champions event earlier this year. “I birdied all of the par 3s – 2s don’t add up as fast as 3s. Obviously, I got out before the wind really picked up so that helped.”

Doug Garwood started the day in third, but he went 4 over on his final four holes to fall into a tie for eighth with five other players. Nine-time senior major champion Bernhard Langer and Scott Verplank were just behind Garwood in a tie for fourth at the start, but shot 72 and 73, respectively. Fred Couples and Tom Lehman began the day four strokes off the lead, and after even-par rounds of 70, their deficit was doubled to eight strokes.

Along with Jobe, Steve Flesch (65-204), Corey Pavin (66-205) and Vijay Singh (68-205) climbed the leader board into the top 10, but are barely within hailing distance of the top duo.

“I want to embrace it. I want to love having a chance tomorrow to win a USGA championship,” said Triplett, 55. “I might not do it, but I want to love having the chance to do it. I think outside of my first PGA Tour win, I think this would really be the most important thing that I would have accomplished in my career.”

For 2013 champion Perry, it would provide further validation after several near-misses in majors during his PGA Tour career.

“This is a championship I always wanted to win,” said Perry. “I have a trophy at home that I look at a lot. It would be nice to back it up with a second one. If I could somehow not think about what I’m doing, being a U.S. Open and the pressure, and swing at it like I know I can swing at it, good things are going to happen.”

It’s going to be fun to watch.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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