62? No way. Let’s be real: That was never going to happen. Those who suggested 62 was a possibility clearly have never played Merion, or don’t realize the USGA always figures out a way to protect par. This was never going to turn into Congressional, Part Deux. Merion is in a different class.
Turned out to 67 would be the low score at the halfway mark at the U.S. Open — one posted by Phil Mickelson on Thursday and the other by Billy Horschel on Friday, who both happen to share the 36-hole lead at one-under. And while 62 didn’t happen, perhaps an even more impressive feat was achieved: hitting 18 greens in regulation.
Since the USGA started keeping track of stats in 1992, Horschel became the first golfer in a U.S. Open to go 18 for 18. At the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion, David Graham hit 17 greens and a fringe to shoot 67, as well. He ended up winning the tournament. Horschel, who is known for his excellent ballstriking by his fellow Tour pros, put on a clinic on Friday, but he didn’t realize he had hit every single green in regulation until he was told after he putted out.
Plus, he’s done it several times in the past, but of course, never at a major championship. And no, he wasn’t seeing every shot with laser-like focus. There were plenty of times where he felt apprehensive over the ball.
“No, I was not in the zone, trust me,” said Horschel. “This golf course, even though it’s soft, is still a tough golf course. I know what ‘in the zone’ is for me: I don’t get nervous, I just see the shot and go. And I saw the shot and I went with it, but I was still nervous with a lot of them. Your misses here can be bad if you miss in the wrong spots. I was just focused on what I tried to do.”
Horschel, who earlier this year hadn’t missed a cut in 23 events until The Players, broke through with his first Tour victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, clinching the trophy with a 15-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole. So he’s been under the gun before, but a regular run-of-the-mill event isn’t the same as the U.S> Open, obviously.
“I know it’s a big event, I know it’s a historical event,” Horschel said when I asked him what his comfort level was to hold the lead and hang on to it through the weekend. “But one thing that me and (my sports psychologist) Fran (Pirozzolo) have worked on is limiting the distractions. I get distracted too easily out there on the course and off the course. It’s more or less, ‘Focus on what I do, don’t worry about anybody else. Don’t worry about the crowd noise. Don’t worry about what your playing partners are doing, just focus on what I’m trying to do.’ I’m just going to to think about trying to execute every golf shot from here on in for the next 36 holes. If I can do that, we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
Shot of the day (that I saw in person): Rory McIlroy’s tee shot on no. 10, his last hole of the day, found the right rough, but he had an OK lie — by that, I mean, you could actually see part of the ball resting in the deep, thick grass. He only had a little wedge in his hand, but if you’ve watched any of the tournament, then you know how penal missing the fairway can be. The pin was tucked in the back left with not a lot of green to work with and a massive bunker guarding the front. Basically, it epitomized “sucker pin.”
Meanwhile, there was plenty of room right of it, which would have been the safe play that most guys would have taken. Was he going for it? 60/40, I figured, but had a feeling he would. Mind you, Rory isn’t as aggressive as people may believe — he’s learned to pick and choose his battles.
But here, it sure looked like he was aiming for it. Indeed, he was. He held his follow-through and watched it. As it hung in the air, it looked good, but it was going to be close. And it hit…the grass. Success! It cleared the bunker, landing perfectly on the fringe (remember, he was hitting out of the rough, so it was probably going to be a flier) and rolled out pin-high about six feet from the hole.
The birdie putt was slippery and it slid past and just kept on rolling. It almost looked like the comeback for par was longer than the first putt, but he made it. That’s a nice way to end the day. Rory shot an even-par 70 after posting three-over 73 in the first round for a three-over 36-hole total.
With 68 players of 156 left to complete their round, Rory is currently T17th, along with his big brother Tiger Woods.
“It was solid,” said Rory. “I got off to a good start, birdied the first two holes of my round, which was 11 and 12. And then got through the that stuff stretch with 14 through 18 with only 1over. Which is a pretty good effort. And played solid. It felt like every time I made a birdie I made a bogey straight away. Like on 3 and 4 and then 8 and 9.
“But I played well. It’s a course where you sort of feel like you can shoot a score, but where they put the pins and where it’s tricky, it’s tough, and I’m right there for the weekend and I’m happy about that.”
Still, it was a strenuous test of golf, and again, there was no way anyone was going to come in with a 62, you clowns!
Q. So much talk about Merion being wet and being attackable and low numbers. She seems to be prevailing. Can you talk about the conditions out there? RORY McILROY: I didn’t hear any of the golfers saying that. It was you guys saying that it was going to be scorable. So you must be very good golfers. I never thought there was people saying 63, 64, that was never going to happen. If you don’t hit the fairways here, you’re not going to score. If you do hit the fairways, it’s still a big challenge from there.
A few weeks ago at The Memorial, I was talking to a player who would prefer to remain anonymous on the driving range, I mentioned Merion needed to firm up for the U.S. Open, otherwise they might tear it up.
The player shrugged and said, “I’m sure the USGA will find some way to make it stupid hard.” I laughed and didn’t think much of it, but I forgot that although he’s won multiple USGA championships, he’s really not a big fan of them
Speaking of which, he’s not alone. Zach Johnson, who shot 74-77 (11-over), ranted about the way Merion was setup, which enhanced his “disdain for the USGA and how it manipulates golf courses,” according to GolfChannel.com’s Randall Mell.
Johnson played with Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk, who were in the final group on Sunday at last year’s U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. The trio of major champs shot a combined 40-over.