A bright yellow sphere made an appearance on Friday at The Los Angeles Country Club that likely left a few people red in the face. A lack of sun and wind that had left the North Course a bit exposed for the game’s best players on Day 1 of the 123rd U.S. Open Championship became part of the mix in Round 2.
USGA officials came up with a game plan for the expected morning marine layer by setting up the course to its scorecard length – 7,423 yards (par 70) – including two par 3s that measured 290-plus yards and a par 4 (555-yard 16th) that played longer than one of the par 5s (the 535-yard eighth).
With the classic George C. Thomas Jr. gem finally splashed in sunshine with accompanying breezes, the preferred firm and faster conditions began to take hold by day’s end.
As the course transformation evolved on Friday, competitors did their best to strike while the iron was hot. In fact, the cut of 2-over-par 142 was the lowest in championship history, surpassing last year’s mark of 143 at The Country Club and 2003 at Olympia Fields Country Club.
The player taking the biggest advantage of the conditions is Murrieta, Calif., native Rickie Fowler, who backed up his Round 1 championship-record 62 with a 2-under 68. His 10-under total of 130 matches the halfway scoring mark by Martin Kaymer, the man Fowler finished second to in that 2014 championship at Pinehurst.
Sitting one stroke back is Wyndham Clark, a Denver, Colo., native who claimed his first PGA Tour win on May 7 at the Wells Fargo Championship. He posted a second-round 67 to accompany his opening 64.
But Fowler and Clark have several luminaries in hot pursuit, including past champions Rory McIlroy (2011) and Dustin Johnson (2016), who are two and four strokes back, respectively, along with 18-hole co-leader Xander Schauffele, who birdied his final two holes to post even-par 70 and tie McIlroy at 8-under 132. Schauffele, a San Diego native, has finished no worse than a share of 14th in six U.S. Open starts.
Harris English’s Friday 66 has the former University of Georgia All-American three behind, and don’t count out world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who sits at 5-under 135 with 2022 U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett.
All of these competitors expect to see LACC show its teeth over the final 36 holes as the course begins to firm up.
“You can see the bounce,” said local favorite and two-time major champion Collin Morikawa, who made three consecutive birdies late in Round 2 to sneak inside the cutline. “A few of the greens out there are just so much firmer than others. Hole 5, for example, is just so much firmer, and that first bounce coming in just absolutely ricochets away.”
Fowler, meanwhile, had one of the crazier U.S. Open rounds with eight birdies, six bogeys and four pars. His 18 birdies through 36 holes shattered the championship mark by four; Gil Morgan posted 14 at Pebble Beach in 1992.
For a player with just five PGA Tour wins and no majors – he finished in the top 5 of all four in 2014 – could this finally be Fowler’s time? A year ago, he was the first on-site alternate and didn’t get to play. This came during a period in his career that saw his Official World Golf Ranking slip to No. 185. A switch in instructors to Butch Harmon has given the 34-year-old some newfound confidence. And although he hasn’t won on Tour since the 2019 WM Phoenix Open, he does have three top 10s in his last six starts.
“I sure hope everyone can relate to struggles because everyone deals with them,” said Fowler. “No one's perfect. I think you'd be lying if you haven't been through a tough time, especially if you play golf.
“I'm looking forward to the weekend. It's been a while since I've felt this good in a tournament, let alone a major. It's going to be a challenge, but I'm definitely looking forward to it.”
Fowler and Clark, who spent a couple of seasons at Oklahoma State where Fowler briefly starred before turning pro following the 2009 Walker Cup, will be in Saturday’s final pairing. The 29-year-old Clark won the 2016 Pacific-12 Conference title for Oregon and was named Golfweek magazine’s Player of the Year for the 2015-16 season, but he has never been in this position in a major.
Clark said an early visit to LACC on the Tuesday prior to championship week provided him an opportunity to map out a strategy and gain some confidence with the course. With longtime friend and LACC member PJ Fielding serving as his caddie, Clark received invaluable information about the greens.
It has showed the first two days as Clark has registered 11 birdies, an eagle and just four bogeys.
McIlroy owns 36 worldwide victories, but he has been major-less since the 2014 PGA Championship. He’s coming off a tie for seventh at last month’s PGA, and a year ago, he finished in the top 10 of all four, including a solo second in the Masters, the one major he needs to complete the career Grand Slam.
Through two rounds, he’s No. 1 in strokes gained off the tee (+2.06), No. 4 in strokes gained approach (+2.14), sixth in strokes gained putting (+2.3), tied for fifth in greens in regulation (29 of 36) and 11th in putts (1.66 per green).
Now it’s a matter of being No. 1 in the most important statistic: the scoreboard.
“I started thinking about winning this thing when I came here on Monday,” said McIlroy. “No one wants to win another major more than I do. The desire is obviously there.”
Sixty-one professionals and four amateurs will play Round 3 on Saturday, beginning at 9:33 a.m. PDT. The final round will take place on Sunday. Should a two-hole aggregate playoff be necessary to break a tie, it would be contested on Nos. 1 and 18.
“It's not that easy out there. I've made a lot of birdies and that is doable out there. Until you've been on the grounds or been out there hitting shots, it's still a very hard test. Is it the hardest U.S. Open? No. It's a good, fair, hard test.” – Rickie Fowler
“It was big, just to keep myself in touch. Four back wouldn't have been out of this world, but I was just playing too good golf to sort of let that round get away from me.” – Xander Schauffele on his birdie-birdie finish on Nos. 17 and 18, two of LACC’s most challenging holes
“I didn't really hit that bad of a drive. Just hit it a little on the top so it didn't quite cut enough. Caught the corner of the bunker and then chunked my bunker shot and then chunked the next one, skulled the next one. Everything that you could do wrong I did wrong. It happens sometimes, but [I] just battled back and played a really good round of golf.” – Dustin Johnson (64-70—134) on making a quadruple-bogey 8 on the par-4 second hole
“I hit 3-wood on seven into a par 3. I don't think I've ever done that before. 290-something today.” – Harris English (67-66—133) on playing the 299-yard hole
“As soon as I hit it I thought that it got a good chance of going close anyway. Dead center. My hand was a bit sore afterward, I'll be honest, after all the high fiving.” – Matt Fitzpatrick on his ace at No. 15
“I think every major championship and every venue is different. You just have to play what the course gives you. I felt like coming into this week that was going to be a key for me if I could put the ball in play. You can play from there and create some scoring opportunities. That's really my game plan over the next couple days.” – Rory McIlroy (65-67—132) on his approach to the weekend
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.