Tournament organisers admitted they went "too far" with the set up of Shinnecock Hills after a day of "carnage" in the 118th US Open.
Only three players broke par in the third round and scores of 66 early in the day were enough to lift Tony Finau and Daniel Berger from a tie for 45th to a share of the lead on three over par with defending champion Brooks Koepka and overnight leader Dustin Johnson.
England's Justin Rose is a shot off the pace after a 73, with Henrik Stenson a shot further back and Masters champion Patrick Reed and Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk on seven over alongside Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat, whose 68 lifted him from joint last to a tie for seventh.
"We want the US Open to be tough, a complete test but there's no doubt it was a tale of two golf courses," USGA chief executive Mike Davis told host broadcaster Fox Sports.
"We will admit there were some aspects of the set up where we went too far, in that well-executed shots were not rewarded and in some cases penalised."
Is that an apology ?— Ian Poulter (@IanJamesPoulter) June 17, 2018
Just grow a set of balls and say we £€¥#ed it up again...
You don’t get mulligan’s in business at this level. how can this team keep doing this without consequences. https://t.co/INvUmT6M6P
However, that cut little ice with Ian Poulter, who responded angrily to Davis's comments following a 76 which left him four shots off the lead.
"Is that an apology?" Poulter wrote on Twitter. "Just grow a set of balls and say we #EY#ed it up again... You don't get mulligan's in business at this level. how can this team keep doing this without consequences."
Stenson said the USGA "never fail to fail" while Spain's Rafa Cabrera wrote on Twitter: "Painful finish with a 7 at the last that ruins a pretty decent day. Regardless, it was not a fair test of golf.
"Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. @USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course. A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course."
The last time Shinnecock Hills hosted the event in 2004 play had to be suspended during the final round - in which 28 of the 66 players amazingly failed to break 80 - to water the seventh green, with only the winner Retief Goosen and runner-up Phil Mickelson finishing under par.
And similar conditions transpired 14 years later as some questionable pin positions on hard, fast greens resulted in the "carnage" which two-time major champion Zach Johnson predicted after completing a 72.
"It's unfortunate that our nation's tournament is already shot at a venue that they lost 14 years ago," Johnson told Sky Sports.
Dustin Johnson saw his four-shot overnight lead wiped out in the space of six holes as he limped to the turn in 41, but steadied the ship on the back nine and held the outright lead before three-putting the last.
Koepka's round of 72 was the best from anyone in the last seven groups and the 28-year-old is confident he can become the first back-to-back winner of the US Open since Curtis Strange in 1989.
"There's no-one more confident than me," Koepka said. "I won this last year and I feel like you have to take this from me."
Rose, whose victory at Merion in 2013 was the last time a tournament on the PGA Tour was won with an over-par total, was left to regret two bogeys in the last three holes but said: "I love my position.
"I said yesterday if I was four back going into tomorrow, I'd love my position. Just being within the right zip code, it gives you a chance tomorrow.
"There's a lot of us in the hunt tomorrow, though. It's a very condensed leaderboard. All great players as well, in and around the lead. It's going to take a special round tomorrow, but at least you have the opportunity."