This is shaping up to be a U.S. Open Championship like no other.
Just look at the leader board. Four players – Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, Brian Harman and Brooks Koepka – share the 36-hole lead in the 117th edition at 7 under par.
That’s not a misprint. Even though, at more than 7,800 yards, Erin Hills is the longest venue in championship history, red has become a predominant color on the boards, with 42 competitors under par at the midway point.
Just for some perspective, the last four-way 36-hole tie occurred 43 years ago, when Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Hale Irwin and Ray Floyd – all past or future U.S. Open champions – posted 3-over 143 at Winged Foot Golf Club in 1974. That championship was dubbed the Massacre at Winged Foot due to the challenging conditions, and Irwin prevailed at 7-over 287 to claim the first of his three U.S. Open titles.
This week, the assault has been on the 11-year-old layout 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee that is hosting its first U.S. Open. Soft conditions from early-week rains, warm temperatures and the lack of gusty winds have made Erin Hills vulnerable to scoring. Hideki Matsuyama and Chez Reavie both shot 7-under 65s on Friday. A day after a record 44 under-par scores were posted in Round 1, 46 were recorded on Friday, one shy of the number posted in 1990, in Round 2 on Medinah Country Club’s Course No. 3.
But the world’s top three players were red for another reason. All three were sent packing on Friday, a first for the U.S. Open since 1986, when the Official World Golf Ranking was created. World No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson posted 4-over 148 to miss by three. World No. 2 Rory McIlroy, the 2011 champion, was another shot behind, and No. 3 Jason Day finished at 10-over 154.
Three others in the top 10 – Henrik Stenson (No. 6), Alex Noren (No. 8) and Jon Rahm (No. 10) – also won’t have weekend starting times.
Sixty-eight competitors will play the final 36 holes – including two amateurs – and the run of six consecutive first-time major champions is very much in play. The streak began with the 2015 PGA Championship 71 miles northeast of Erin Hills at Whistling Straits, when Day prevailed. Of the 23 players within four strokes of the lead, only newly minted Masters champion Sergio Garcia and 2014 U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer own major titles, and they both trail by four.
First-round leader Rickie Fowler, ranked ninth and seeking to end a 0-for-29 drought in majors, couldn’t match his 7-under 65 from Thursday. Nevertheless, the uber-popular 28-year-old California native kept himself in the hunt with a 73, one shot behind the quartet of leaders, along with J.B. Holmes and Jamie Lovemark.
Fowler shared the lead with Koepka through 27 holes until he hit a speed bump with a string of bogeys on Nos. 11-13. That ended his bogey-free streak at 28 holes, seven off McIlroy’s championship record.
“I have a tee time on Saturday,” said Fowler, owner of four PGA Tour titles, including the 2015 Players Championship. “You learn along the way to never really give up. You never know what one shot's going to count for.”
Just ask Casey. The 39-year-old Englishman, who entered Friday’s second round one off the lead, suffered a triple-bogey 8 on the par-5 14th – his fifth hole of the day – before recovering with five consecutive birdies from No. 17. His 1-under 70 put him in Saturday’s final pairing with Harman, the 2003 U.S. Junior Amateur champion who is vying to become the first left-hander to hoist the U.S. Open Trophy.
“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an 8 on the card, but I'm a pretty happy man,” said Casey, who has nine top-10 finishes in majors, but just one in the U.S. Open (2007). “For me, it felt like [the course] played tougher today. If the sun stays like it is and the wind keeps baking this golf course out, it's going to be pretty treacherous on the weekend, which is just what I would like, and I think what the rest of the players want to see.”
Harman, 30, has no such history in majors. Two years ago, he failed to make the cut in all four, and his tie for 26th in the 2014 Open Championship at Hoylake is his best finish. But he’s seen positive results in 2017, including his second career PGA Tour win in the Wells Fargo Championship.
The former University of Georgia standout made three birdies against one bogey on Friday, and he had a chance to take the outright lead into the weekend, but pushed his 14-foot birdie attempt. While some said Erin Hills would be a bomber’s paradise, the diminutive Harman is succeeding by using the contours of the course to his advantage.
“I don’t hit it as far as the big guys do, so for me, I have to use some of the slopes and try to get some extra distance that way,” said the two-time USA Walker Cup competitor. “But what I think is so good about this course is that the longer the par-4s are, the more generous the greens are. So you can tell they put a lot of thought into it. If you hit a good shot, you have a chance for birdies. If not, it's penal.”
The long-hitting Koepka, averaging 324.9 yards to rank 16th in driving distance, hasn’t needed more than a 7-iron into the greens on the par 4s, five of which measure 490 or longer. He’s also tied for fifth in fairways hit (25 of 28) and tied for first in greens in regulation (30 of 36). Starting on No. 10, he briefly reached 9 under on Friday with four birdies in his first seven holes, only to give two shots back on his second nine.
“It’s not easy by any means, it's the U.S. Open,” said Koepka, 27, who has two runner-up finishes this year and whose lone PGA Tour victory came in the 2015 Waste Management Open. “Some guys are hitting 4-iron into the greens, and having a wedge and a 9-iron [for most of my approach shots], I've got to put it close.”
Fleetwood, 26, of England, has forged his spot at 7 under with his performance on the greens. The two-time European Tour winner who is making his second U.S. Open start is averaging 1.53 putts, which is tied for ninth. He closed Friday’s round with a 10-foot birdie on No. 18, which put him in the penultimate Saturday pairing with Koepka.
“Tomorrow will be a very cool experience,” said Fleetwood. “It's still Saturday and 36 holes is a very long time in a U.S. Open. Anything can happen.”
Judging by the first two days, that sounds like a pretty good prediction.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.