By Mark Lamport-Stokes
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Washington (Reuters) - Gentle breezes, dazzling sunshine and birdie opportunities in more receptive conditions greeted the early starters on Sunday at Chambers Bay where the U.S. Open was poised for a gripping finish.
Four players were tied for the overnight lead -- Americans Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, South African Branden Grace and Australian Jason Day – and they were preparing for a mid-afternoon teeoff on the challenging links-style layout.
Among the early finishers, American Morgan Hoffmann piled up six birdies and two bogeys to fire a four-under 66 in the final round, his five-over total lifting him into a tie for 31st place.
"I started the round off kind of slow, the greens were a lot slower today," Hoffmann told reporters after closing with a flurry of four birdies in his last seven holes.
"I'm sure they just watered them in the morning, but I got used to them on the back nine and finished strong. But I'm sure with this sun and a little bit of breeze today, they'll bake out in the afternoon."
Also dipping below par early on Sunday were South African Thomas Aiken (66) and American amateur Nick Hardy (68) while out on the course Australian Geoff Ogilvy was four under after 13 holes and Spaniard Sergio Garcia three under after nine.
Most eyes at Chambers Bay, however, were focused on the upper reaches of the leaderboard where Masters champion Spieth is bidding to become just the sixth player to slip into a green jacket and hoist the U.S. Open trophy in the same year.
Spieth carded a one-over 71 in tough scoring conditions on Saturday to end the third round joint top at four-under 206, level with Johnson (70), Grace (70) and Day, who delivered one of the grittiest displays ever seen at a major to card a 68.
Day had sent a shudder through the tournament on Friday when he collapsed due to vertigo before he finished the second round, but 24 hours later he hung tough as he battled his way into contention for a first major title.
Johnson, a nine-times winner on the PGA Tour, and Grace, who has triumphed six times on the European Tour, are also seeking their first victories in a major on a punishing layout where no player has been able to break clear of the field.
(Editing by Larry Fine)