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PINEHURST, N.C. -- Seconds after his 67th shot of the day found the bottom of the 18th cup at Pinehurst No. 2, Bryson DeChambeau turned to the sprawling infrastructure running up the left-hand side of the green. He raised his arm and his hand, his fingers clutching a golf ball and waited for the roars

They came, just as they did all day, before the solo leader of the 124th U.S. Open flung his ball into the stands to the approval of all who had stayed until nightfall to see the current greatest show in golf. He had already given them everything else.

How did this happen? How did Bryson DeChambeau -- awkward, a little bit cringey and a lot bombastic -- become ... the crowd favorite at the United States Open? There's not enough time between now and his final round to fully and completely answer that question. (And frankly, at this point, it doesn't really matter.)

What matters is that on Sunday, with his second U.S. Open on the line and a player in his pairing (Frenchman Matthieu Pavon) who nobody on the property will be cheering (sorry, Matt), it will feel like the entire country is behind him.

"It was amazing," DeChambeau said of the love he received Saturday. "I can't thank them enough. It was a blessing. Man, they riled me up. It just gives me a spike in my adrenaline and allows me to focus more on delivering for the fans and for myself and for my family. It just inspires me."

More important than the support gap favoring DeChambeau is the that between his score and those of everyone else. After a scorching back nine in which he hit four approach shots inside 15 feet, a double bogey at the par-4 16th undid some of his work. So, of course, Bryson rolled in a 2 at the par-3 17th to get one stroke back and open up a three-shot lead on Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay and Pavon.

That three-shot margin means that a second major title for the Greatest Showman is a probability ... but not a certainty.

So, while the Pinehurst crowds will -- I can't believe I'm saying this after the way Bryson was treated less than three years ago by golf fans -- attempt to carry America's Golfer home on Sunday for a win in his national championship, there will be a handful of contenders that will make it difficult on him.

Let's take a look at those contenders who will try to take down the even-odds favorite in DeChambeau, ranked starting with the most likely to catch him once they tee it up at Pinehurst No. 2 on Sunday afternoon.

1. Rory McIlroy (-4): McIlroy is hitting the ball as well as ever. His driver remains the greatest weapon in the game, and he went shot for shot with DeChambeau off the tee Saturday in the third round. It would be easy to look at the guy who's first from tee to green and 45th this week in putting and say, He just needs to get a few to drop on Sunday, and he'll be right in it. But it's actually some loose iron play coming home that McIlroy needs to tidy up to have a real chance. 

Regardless, rory low-key has not had that many chances over the last 10 years at winning majors, and this is probably one of his three or four best. At some point, the numbers don't matter, the top 10s don't matter, the ball speed doesn't matter. At some point, none of it matters. He just has to put himself in the mix over the final nine holes and get the job done. That's what champions do, and he's been one of the great ones over the last two decades. Now, he just needs the major title to prove it. Odds: 3-1

2. Patrick Cantlay (-4): Even after his 65 on Thursday, Cantlay did not appear a legitimate threat to win this tournament. Why? He's been shaky off the tee, and that's a difficult category to overcome over the course of 72 holes of play. However, he keeps lingering, hanging around. And if a player of his caliber can get to the back nine Sunday within one or two of the lead, anything can happen. After Cantlay chased down McIlroy at the Ryder Cup and made putt after putt in massive moments, that changed the way he was thought about as a competitor. The thing to watch for him on Sunday is whether he continues to drive it offline. If so, then he could run into some bad breaks in the wiregrass, which could lead to a double or worse that ends his chances. Odds: 15/2

3. Ludvig Åberg (-2): One hole took down Åberg's U.S. Open chances as he made a triple bogey at the short par-4 13th on Saturday. Even though he's first in this field in ball-striking, it's his short game that has proven to be his shortcoming. Still, he hung in. It will likely take something pretty special from Åberg, but he's the type of talent who could absolutely shoot 66 and make history as the first U.S. Open player to win in his debut in 111 years. Odds: 16-1

4. Hideki Matsuyama (-2): Nobody is talking about Matsuyama, which is likely just fine with him. Following his round-of-the-day 66 on Friday, he shot even-par 70 on Saturday to get inside the top six. He's currently top 10 in this field in approach play, and he's playing from a spot where he could post with a heater back nine and wait for everybody to pile up behind him. Matsuyama is not out of it, and that Augusta National-Pinehurst double major would be spectacular. Odds: 18-1

5. Matthieu Pavon (-4): I'm not necessarily a believer, but Pavon has hung around admirably this week. He's impossible to leave off this list, but it's slightly concerning that he's No. 1 in the field in putting. Maybe that's sustainable, but it could easily come undone on Sunday afternoon. Odds: 16-1

Rick Gehman, Greg DuCharme recap Saturday at the 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.