Horschel, Mickelson Share Lead at One-Under 139
Several Players Seeking Their First Major Lurk At Even Par
By Stuart Hall
ARDMORE, Pa. — Talk about an even fight at the 113th U.S. Open.
Philadelphia has long been known for its hard-nosed toughness, so expect the weekend at Merion Golf Club's East Course to feature a full card of bare-knuckled punches thrown by a marquee group of players led by Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel at 1-under 139.
On Friday, Horschel, 26, played nearly flawless golf over 29 holes, including hitting 18 greens in regulation during a 3-under 67 second round that gave him the clubhouse lead. Horschel was alone there until Mickelson joined him with a 21-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole after the horn was sounded to suspend second-round play at 8:27 p.m. EDT.
Mickelson's birdie, which capped an up-and-down second round of 72, moved him out of an even-par tie with perennial major contenders Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, and 21-year-old amateur Cheng-Tsung Pan.
Second-round play will resume at 7:15 a.m. on Saturday with 68 players having to finish their rounds, including Poulter and Pan.
"I don't know how anyone is going to separate too far from the field," Mickelson said. "There might be a hot round tomorrow and they might get a hot round on Sunday, but it’s unlikely to be the same player."
Five more players are at one over par, while major winners Charl Schwartzel (two over), Tiger Woods (three over), Rory McIlroy (three over) and Ernie Els (three over) are within four shots of the lead.
Horschel is making only his second U.S. Open appearance in what has been a breakout season. After finishing 140th and 147th on the PGA Tour money list, respectively, the past two seasons, the former University of Florida All-American has been among the tour's best players since the spring. He reeled off three straight top-10 finishes before earning his first PGA Tour win at the Zurich Classic.
Horschel believes maturity and patience have fueled his rise.
"I just think that the older I get, the more mature I get on the golf course, the more understanding that if I do have a bad stretch of holes, I don't hit the panic button," he said. "You're going to have a couple of bad holes, but if you get in a flow you can sort of get something going.”
Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion who covets this championship, opened the second round with a bogey and then reeled off 10 straight pars. Successive bogeys at 12 and 13 dropped him into the group at even par before the final-hole birdie.
"I got shut out today," said Mickelson, 42, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up. "I played really well. Even though I shot two over, it was the birdie opportunities that I didn't capitalize on. Had I made one on two or that birdie on nine or 11, I would have changed the momentum of the round."
Stricker, 46, would set the record for the oldest U.S. Open champion were he to win at Merion. He has dramatically reduced his playing schedule this season, but is enjoying his best U.S. Open since a sixth-place tie in 2006. He has made the cut in 16 of his 17 previous U.S. Opens and grabbed a share of the lead with a birdie at the 123-yard, par-3 13th, but then three-putted the 15th green.
After Mickelson birdied the 18th in waning sunlight, Stricker completed an up-and-down for par. Maybe more pleasing to Stricker than his second-round 69 will be the extra rest he will get on Saturday.
"We don't have to get back up and get out here early and then sit around and wait for tee times," he said. "So that enabled us a few extra hours of sleep, which is always a good thing heading into the weekend."
Rose, 32, has gotten off to the same 71-69 start as Stricker. Unlike Stricker, though, Rose's U.S. Open history has been spotty. He tied for fifth in his U.S. Open debut in 2003, but has since missed four of six cuts. In 2007, when he tied for 10th, he was third — like he is this week — heading into the weekend.
"That's the job of the first two rounds, to get yourself in striking distance, and tomorrow is an important day to hang around and give yourself a chance on Sunday," Rose said. "You can't get ahead of yourself on the tee shot tomorrow.
"This kind of golf course you don't know what to expect. So I don't think you're safe until you've carded your score here. You can be 4 or 5 under going into the last few holes. You don't know how the round is going to pan out, so you have to stay focused."
Donald arrived at Merion early on Friday morning atop the leaderboard at 4 under through 13 holes. The day proved arduous for the 35-year-old Englishman. He bogeyed two of his final three holes to close a 2-under 68, and then struggled to a 2-over 72 in a second round that featured five bogeys in a six-hole stretch.
In 29 U.S. Open rounds prior to today, Donald had never been higher than sixth after a round and that was after the opening round in 2005 at Pinehurst No. 2. Only two other times had he been in the top 10.
"Obviously I haven't played very well, but when I saw this place last week, I thought it was a good fit for my game," said Donald, a four-time European Ryder Cup team member. "And obviously it's nice to come here and feel like I'm swinging pretty well and I've got a chance. So hopefully I can throw a good one in tomorrow and really be in the mix come Sunday."
With holes left to complete are Poulter, 37, who has never finished better than 12th in nine U.S. Opens, and Pan, 21, who is a rising junior at the University of Washington. Poulter has four remaining to complete his second round; Pan nine.
Pan may appear to be the oddity in the quintet of players at even par, but he relishes this stage.
"This atmosphere is great," said Pan, who in 2007 became the youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist since Bob Jones at the age of 15. "I came to the U.S. Open in 2011 and I just fell in love with this kind of atmosphere. Personally I feel I belong to that kind of place. I'm not saying I'm good enough, but I love this kind of feeling and the competition is great. I just want to be here always."
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.