Four players are tied atop the leaderboard with Paul Casey, Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood, and Brooks Koepka all -7 at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Story By Deborah Leung Pointed Magazine Staff
Photo’s By Benjamin Rogers, Jr
Erin Hills, Wis
There were so many names bunched into contention Friday at the U.S. Open that it wouldn’t have been completely surprising had the leader board suddenly showed Aaron Rodgers, Giannis Antetokounmpo or the cart driver who nearly rammed into the back of the other cart near the third hole. (He screeched the brakes.)
As the second-round lead ricocheted among first-round leader Rickie Fowler, ambitious 27-year-old Floridian Brooks Koepka and aged, savvy Paul Casey he’s 39 but not yet decrepit a crowd formed just behind them. By 5:30 p.m. Central time, with the round reaching its closing fumes, a whopping 44 players remained under par, and 24 of them lurked within five shots of the lead.
The theme of the 117th U.S. Open had become, roughly: Who knows?
That rookie U.S. Open course, Erin Hills, had toughened just a notch. Fowler’s first-round score of 7-under-par 65 had held up as pretty much the standard, and the number of possibilities for the weekend had turned out dizzying. This would be the antithesis of the Tiger Woods romp at Pebble Beach in 2000, in part because it figured to spend the weekend shorn of so many of its stars.
The No. 2 player in the world, Rory McIlroy, put lipstick on his opening 78 with a 71 that included four bogeys but five birdies, four of them in his final six holes in a farewell binge before a second straight U.S. Open missed cut and a third in the six years since he won decisively at Congressional in 2011.
“Showed up for the last six holes, anyway,” he said.
The No. 3 player in the world, Jason Day, added a 75 to go with his 79 and marveled at the mysterious sport he has mastered, relating how he never felt more prepared for a major than for this. (He has played 27 of them.)
“I was in the hay too much,” he said, before adding, “I enjoyed the walk,” and, “The golf course is actually really beautiful.”
That left No. 1 Dustin Johnson hovering near the projected cut line of 1 over as the round wound down.
Of the players who popped up on the 15-strong leader board through the day, only one, Sergio Garcia, had won a major, and his didn’t come until April, when he won the Masters on his 74th major try. “Obviously my game is on,” Garcia said, “when the course is playing tougher.”
It complied on Friday as a sport designed to be uniquely grim and unpleasurable became more grim and unpleasurable compared with Thursday and its rare ration of U.S. Open glee. It did this even in day-long, splashy sunshine. “The course was just drier,” Casey said. “A tiny fraction more wind today. The tees, some of the tees were farther back, but you know, it was wonderful to see that there was no, I felt no knee-jerk reaction to yesterday’s scores. Incredibly fair.”
But: “It doesn’t need to be too much of a change for this golf course to play pretty difficult.”
After his excellent Masters (sixth) and his sterling 66 on Thursday, Casey did find a calamity Friday. He hacked his way around No. 14 as if using a rake in parts of it, and by the time he finished the saga, he had a grotesque 8, a triple-bogey that he followed with a plain-old bogey on No. 15.
Yet from there, Casey got ahold of himself and made five birdies in a row Nos. 17, 18, 1, 2 and 3 one shy of a U.S. Open record. Asked about this phenomenon, he said earnestly, “Did I have five birdies in a row?” He did, and it showed his capacity to recover, a knack resulting from “17 years, 16 years of doing it,” he said.
His nine top-10 finishes in majors made him an anomaly on the big board. Many other contenders have had fewer or far fewer, even if some have had PGA Tour success or even wins. The board teemed all day with Brian Harman and Xander Schauffele (a 23-year-old from San Diego), with Brendan Steele and Marc Leishman (an Australian who appeared in the three-man playoff at the 2015 British Open), with Harris English and Charley Hoffman (a journeyman who hovered around the Masters lead this year), with Koepka and with Cameron Champ (an amateur from Texas A&M who has led the 156 players in driving distance), with Bill Haas and, later on, Hideki Matsuyama (the world’s No. 4 player who surged upward from his opening 74).
It also featured a budding star in Si Woo Kim, a 21-year-old South Korean who said he is buying a house in Dallas and whose confidence is ratcheting upward following his impressive three-shot win in the Players Championship in May. Kim, who became the youngest player ever to graduate from PGA Tour qualifying school when he was 17, followed his excellent opening 69 with an excellent
70, and he said, “Players gave a lot of confidence for me. And then I got hurt” — his back — “but getting better the last few days.”
Injuries do tend to get better at 21, and in this crowd, there’s no telling where a fearless young man might go.