It is hard to remember a more exciting “moving day” at a U.S. Open. Because the short “cupcake” course was tearing to shreds the games of all but a handful of the world’s best players.
Only one, Phil Mickelson, managed to finish under par, but just 1-under. And for a while, after early bogies on the front, it looked like he was going to be washed away like so many others.
Perhaps the biggest surprises were the mutual admiration team of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Tiger shot 6-over 76 and looked completely deflated. “I didn’t make anything today. I just couldn’t get a feel for them, some putts were slow, some were fast and I had a tough time getting my speed right,” he said.
McIlroy shot one lower than Tiger to settle the superhero bet between them, but Merion pretty much beat him up too. “If you’re not on your game a hundred percent, you get on the wrong side of the greens and it’s just [very difficult] because I didn’t feel like I played too badly. I missed a few shots here and there, and I was trying on every shot out there and I was trying to get myself back into it, but it’s tough. If you’re just not a hundred percent on top of your game, it’s going to expose some of your flaws or weaknesses.”
At one point, one of my favorite long-term dark horses, Aussie, John Senden, was two under on the day and briefly in the lead until he got knocked off center by bogey waves on 8 and 9. He ardently hung on through 13 until the closing tsunami got him on 14, 16, and 18; bogey, double bogey, bogey.
Rickie Fowler had the low round of the day, a mere 3-under and he was thrilled. He had an early bogey and then four birdies spread out over the closing holes. Which was very interesting because the two guys he was playing with, Sergio Garcia and Robert Karlsson were having golf rounds from hell. Garcia hit it out of bounds three times on the 15th, his 5th hole of the day; he made 10. Karlsson had a uniformly bad day shooting 86.
One wonders how Fowler ended up playing so well in the face of all that collateral carnage:
Well, playing with those two guys, I enjoyed playing with both of them. You couldn’t exactly tell what was going on with them today, which was awesome. It shows a lot about their character on the course and the way they handle themselves.
So it was fun to be around them, it was. I could never tell that they were having terrible days. It says a lot about who they are, just the way they handle themselves around me when I was playing well and they were struggling.
Luke Donald was 2-under on the day and in the lead or co-leading for much of the day until 17 and 18 clipped him for three shots and he fell to 1-over. He had been playing great through 16:
It might be a little bit of fatigue, but it was — both yardages I had to get a little extra out of the 2‑iron. And my poor swing is when I attack too hard from the top and I get out of sync and they go right. And unfortunately those holes are playing tough.
I should have done better. It was disappointing. But I’ll take the positives out of today, a really solid 16 holes of golf that I played and I’m only two back.
The bottom line is that on a pretty benign day, Merion held its own. All the guys at the top of the leaderboard — Phil (E), Hunter Mahan (-1), Charl Schwartzel (-1), Steve Stricker (E), Justin Rose (+1) and Luke Donald (+1) barely moved the needle on the day. Billy Horschel shot 1-over, but because he started the day with the co-lead, that only put him two back of Phil:
You know what, I didn’t have my best stuff today. Obviously I’m not going to hit 18 greens in a row like I did yesterday. That’s a feat in itself. But I hit the ball good enough to play well. Unfortunately, I putted very bad. My speed was bad.
My perfection side kind of came out in me to kind of have the perfect speed and hit the perfect line, and I haven’t done that all this year. I’ve been pretty good at just sort of getting up there, just hit the putt, trust what I want to do. And if it goes in, it goes in.
But my speed was bad, I just putted bad. And I didn’t have my good stuff, but I’m right still in it and I’m happy about it. I can go out tomorrow and hopefully play a good round and maybe post a number and get off early and see what happens.
And for a guy who is playing very well right now, there’s this additional ominous fact that came up Friday in his comments that he reiterated Saturday:
I feel more comfortable coming from behind. I don’t know why that is. I’ve always been like that my whole life. I would like to have the lead going into the final round, that’s always a great thing to have, so maybe one day I can. There’s many more years of chances of that for me. But I feel comfortable coming from behind, I feel like I’m in a good position that I can go out, post a good number, and see what happens.
And given the way that he’s been playing in the Championship so far, you have to believe that he can do it too.
But all eyes will be on Phil on Sunday. First of all, it’s about time that those five previous 2nd place finishes accumulated enough karma so that he can finally have his U.S. Open win. There is the loving-father jaunt across the continent to see his daughter speak at her 8th grade graduation. There is the veritable transformation of swashbuckling Phil into prudent Phil, a seemingly necessary form of self control to win a U.S. Open. And there is the hole in his resume that would be filled; he would have a victory in three of the four majors with only the British Open between him and Grand Slam immortality.
I love being in the thick of it. I’ve had opportunities in years past, and it has been so fun, even though it’s been heart breaking to come so close a number of times and let it slide.
But I feel better equipped than I have ever felt heading into the final round of a U.S. Open. My ball striking is better than it’s ever been. My putting is better than it has been in years, and I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it.
Since he’s already in the Hall of Fame with three Masters, a PGA Championship and 41 total Tour victories and it would be his birthday and Father’s Day, I say, “Give it to him Merion.”