PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – America’s sweethearts, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, have a problem. Multiple problems, in fact.
One, they fell off the pace here Friday in the U.S. Open. Two, the wrong people are ahead of them. The wrong-est of the bunch figure to be Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka, three players whom nobody wants to chase.
No, the Open doesn’t look as if it’s going to be won by a famous 40-something: Woods, 43, or Mickelson, who turns 49 on Sunday. You can’t rule them out because of who they are, but you can’t like their chances because of whom they’re chasing (scores).
Woods just doesn’t look like he’s got it so far. He putted his brains out Thursday to shoot an amazing 70 at Pebble Beach, then played it ultra-conservatively Friday, possibly because he didn’t think that he was in total control of his swing. Did the cool, damp morning affect his back? Well, he made only one birdie and played smart golf until two bad swings led to a bogey-bogey finish at the eighth and ninth holes. That dropped him nine strokes behind Gary Woodland’s lead at 9 under par.
© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Gary Woodland builds a 2-stroke lead in the U.S. Open heading into the weekend.
“It was not a very good finish,” Woods said. “I’m a little hot right now. I kept leaving myself above the hole.”
Woods was in a similar hole in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, then fired a third-round 66, got back into the mix and had a chance to win on Sunday but slipped back with a closing 75. He’s going to need 66 or better this time.
Mickelson’s day featured a scene right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror tale, “The Birds.” A seagull pecked away at Mickelson’s ball in the fairway so aggressively that the ball moved. Mickelson was allowed to replace the ball and play on. He made six birds, not counting the seagull, shot 69 and is eight back. If not for seven bogeys in the first two rounds, he’d be in a better position. That’s classic Mickelson, however. He seldom has a “clean” card.
Koepka remains the most intimidating name on the leaderboard, given his four major championships in the past two years, including the past two U.S. Opens. He played better Friday than he did Thursday but shot a second straight 69 and is five off the lead.
Koepka had near-miss shots and near-miss putts. His round easily could have been five shots lower. So, attention, descendants of Willie Anderson: Koepka is lurking in a strong way in his quest to be the first since Anderson in 1905 to win a third straight Open title.
The bad news for the other pursuers is that Koepka has shaken off the rust. He leads the field in greens hit in regulation.
“I feel great; I’m excited,” Koepka said. “I’ve got a chance. That’s all you can ask for. If I get off to a good start tomorrow, it could be a fun round. I’ll be honest: I struck it so poorly Monday and Wednesday. It’s been nice to find some confidence on the course.”
In other words, he’s flipped the switch and is on. Uh-oh.
Besides Woodland, whose 65 matched the low round of the tournament, Friday’s big-name movers were McIlroy, Rose and Louis Oosthuizen.
McIlroy had a good round going until he bogeyed the 13th from the sand and royally messed up the par-5 14th. There, he watched his third shot spin off the green’s false front, all the way back to the fairway. From there, he made a colossal blunder and dumped his flop shot into the bunker. It turned into a double bogey.
McIlroy birdied the next two holes, though, and recovered the strokes. He’s still on a roll from his Canadian Open victory a week earlier, and he’s obviously one of the guys to beat.
“Wow, what a rollercoaster,” McIlroy said of his back nine. “That was an unforced error at 14. I played a solid round until that point. I need to keep hitting fairways and greens. It’s boring. It’s a cliché, but that’s what I need to do.”
Rose added a 70 to his opening 65 and led until Woodland passed him late in the day. The impressive part was that he hasn’t had his best ball-striking stuff for two days, and he’s hanging around the Open lead.
“That’s the best I’ve seen somebody get up and down around the greens on a golf course, maybe ever,” said Jordan Spieth, who was paired with Rose.
Spieth had a notable day himself, making seven birdies and five bogeys in shooting 69. Every time he made a move, he took a step back. It was a frustrating round. He gained a stroke on first-round leader Rose, but he’s eight behind Woodland.
“Today was kind of a could-have-been round,” Spieth said. “Obviously, I don’t want to paint as many bogeys on the scorecard as I have the first two days. To have eight bogeys in two days and be under par at the U.S. Open means things are in a good place. I’ve just got to limit those mistakes.”
Spieth weirdest mistake involved hitting a rake. He played a shot from a deep fairway bunker at No. 2. His shot barely cleared the lip but instead of flying toward the green, hit a rake that was hidden by the fescue growing atop the bunker. The ball pretty much stopped where it hit. Spieth actually sank a pretty good putt to save bogey.
So, here’s the outlook going to the weekend (tee times):
Most likely to win: It’s still Koepka until he proves otherwise; he is the No. 1-ranked closer in golf.
Most likely to win if Koepka doesn’t: McIlroy or Rose. They’re racking up birdies and know how to score.
Guys who might surprise: Woodland, who’s sort of a mini-Koepka, a big hitter who’s holing putts; Aaron Wise, a young gun from South Africa who won an NCAA championship at Oregon.
Longshots: Mickelson, who’s on this list as a birthday gift; Oosthuizen, who is playing his best golf since he won the 2010 British Open; Adam Scott, six shots off the lead, has been on the leaderboards repeatedly this spring and shouldn’t be ignored.
Almost out of it: Spieth, barring a 64.
Really truly almost out of it: Woods, barring a 63 … or better.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle