WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?

ARDMORE, Pa. —  If the East Course at Merion Golf Club could talk, it might sound a bit like Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood) in the movie Sudden Impact:     “So you want to be aggressive, hit driver, fire at the pins and try to make birdies?  Go ahead, make my day.”

Birdies were few and far between in the second round of the 113th U.S. Open Championship yesterday, as the venerable Merion (assisted by the rigorous USGA set-up) continued give the players all they could handle and more.   Only six players broke par on this short but exacting layout which places a huge premium on hitting fairways and knowing when and when not to attack the confounding hole locations.   Add some wind and hot weather, which began to dry the course, and you have classic U.S. Open golf:  be happy with par, hope to make a birdie here and there, but most of all avoid the big numbers which can materialize in a flash if your ball finds the brutal rough or you miss the green in the wrong place.

At the end of the day (more accurately the next morning, as once again a number of players were unable to complete their rounds after weather delays Thursday delayed Friday starting times by three hours) Phil Mickelson remained atop the leaderboard at 1-under par, along with Billy Horschel, who turned in the best round of the day with a 3-under par 67.  Mickelson shot a 2-over par 72, struggling with some short putts on the fast greens that featured some diabolical hole locations, but ended on a positive note by sinking a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole.  That was one of only eleven birdies yielded by the behemoth 521-yard par-4 hole in two days, which has played to a stroke average of 4.7, making it by far the toughest hole.

The leaderboard is littered with marquee names.  Steady veteran Steve Stricker, along with Englishmen Luke Donald and Justin Rose, were one back at even par.   Both Stricker and Rose shot 1-under par 69s yesterday.   Nicolas Colsaerts, John Senden, Hunter Mahan, and Charl Schwartzel were in a group at 1-over par.   Ian Poulter was in a group at 2-over par, and Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and Ernie Els were well within striking distance at 3-over par.

The cut was 8-over par.   Notable players who missed the cut included Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell, Keegan Bradley, Nick Watney, Zach Johnson,  Angel Cabrera, and Massachusetts native Geoff Sisk.

Drama will build on Sunday if Mickelson remains in the hunt.   The four-time major winner has never won a U.S. Open, but has come excruciatingly close a number of times.   He is probably still haunted by his collapse on the last hole at Winged Foot in 2006, when a par would have won.  Instead, Mickelson hit a wild driver off the tee, attempted a misguided recovery shot out of the trees, and took a double bogey to miss the playoff.

Mickelson was pleased with his finish, but was disappointed that he failed to capitalize on a number of birdie opportunities.   “Yeah, it was a nice way to finish on the 18th,” he said.   “I fought hard all day.  Let a lot of birdie opportunities slide early and in the middle of the round.  I fought hard to stay in there and hit a lot of good quality shots.  Made a bunch of good pars.”  Mickelson noted that with so many players playing more than 18 holes yesterday, the greens had indentations and spike marks, making putting difficult.  “I struggled with a lot of short putts today,” he said.

Woods and McIlroy, who shot matching even par 70s yesterday, seemed to enjoy playing with one another.   McIlroy confirmed that some bantering went on between the two top-ranked players in the world.  “It doesn’t change that it’s a U.S. Open or whatever,” he said.  “We still get on well and there was a good bit of needling every now and again.”

McIlroy was pleased with his round, and likes his position.   He expressed due respect for the East Course.  “It tests every aspect of your game,” he said.  “You got to drive it well.  Where these pins are, you got to hit great iron shots, you got to be very tactical.  You got to be mentally really well there and have a good game plan and this course tests you.”  He predicted that the winning score would be slightly under par, if not even par.

Woods was equally pleased with his performance.   “I just made a couple of mistakes out there today, but I really played well,“ he said.  “It’s hard with the wind and the pin locations,” he said.  “They’re really tough.   We didn’t think they were going to be as severe as they are.”   Woods feels that the USGA is setting up the course in an effort to protect par.   “Watching the telecast, I hadn’t seen this many guys blow putts past the hole with bad speed.   They made it really hard.  You’ve got to hit them in the right spots, but it’s not always easy to do with the wind blowing like this.”

Furyk, who soared to a 79 yesterday after a 77 Thursday, suggested that course set-up might have been too severe.  “I thought there was some hole locations that would have been very unplayable had they been dry and firm,” he said.   “You could set Merion up to where 10-over par would win and you could set it up where 10-under would win.  I think where they hid pin placements,  how they backed the tees up on some of the longer holes, I felt like they were definitely protective of par.”  Despite his travails this week, Furyk still loves Merion.  “It’s a wonderful old course,” he said.   “So I think it’s a testament to a golf course doesn’t have to be 7,800 yards to be a great golf course and Merion will always stand the test of time.”

You don’t have to be off by much to score high here.  Russell Knox commented yesterday:  “It’s not often you flush it and shoot 5-over.”

Once again, starting times were pushed back for Saturday’s third round.   The first groups went off at 12:28.   Mickelson, Horschel, and Donald tee off at 2:40.  Woods and McIlroy are again paired together and tee off at 1:56.

It’s a hot, clear day here at Merion, and the course will start to get firmer and faster.   It will make for an interesting day of golf for the 73 players lucky enough to be playing on the weekend.

Jack Ross, a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly, is on-site at Merion this week.

WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?