McIlroy and Woods show steel
'This is one of those places where par is a good score,' insists Rory, as muted McDowell succumbs to testing conditions
TIGER WOODS and Rory McIlroy, the top two golfers in the world, were forced to scrap and scrape every inch of the way as the supposedly feeble 'Grand Dame of Merion' turned out to be every bit as tough and intimidating as the Iron Lady herself, Maggie Thatcher.
Woods and McIlroy clawed their way into contention at the US Open by grinding out even-par rounds of 70 yesterday afternoon on the formidable East Course while Padraig Harrington found his chances slip away as the light closed in.
At three-over for this championship, McIlroy and Woods are within touching distance of victory entering the final 36 holes... indeed, the destination of this title might all come down to which of these two buddies and closely matched rivals finds the Midas touch with his putter.
On this form, they're likely to see a fair bit of each other over the weekend, which McIlroy doesn't mind.
"Tiger's good fun to be around and I really enjoy playing with him. We had a good laugh out there and because it's the US Open doesn't mean anything," he explained. "I told him on the last there, I was trying to hole the putt (12 feet for birdie) so I didn't have to play with him again tomorrow but now he could have the pleasure of my company again."
Three-over after completing his first round yesterday morning, McIlroy was in chirpy form after yesterday afternoon's effort in the face of some of the most testing pin positions he's encountered in his career.
"They put the holes in some places that even when you hit it close, you had tough putts for your par," said 24-year-old McIlroy.
Reviewing a marathon day's work in which he was required to complete seven holes of his first round in the cold, grey light of dawn, the Ulsterman said: "I played well today. This is one of those places where par is a great score."
McIlroy, who won the US Open on yielding ground at Congressional in 2011, burst out of the starting gate like a thoroughbred in his second round, holing from three feet for birdie at the picturesque 11th, his opening hole.
The packed galleries braced themselves for fireworks as he rammed home a 12-foot birdie putt at the next. Yet a poor chip after coming up short of the green at 14 left McIlroy with a 10-footer for par he couldn't convert, making it plain that any imprecise shots off tee or fairway inevitably will be punished.
Following a great save out of a greenside bunker at 18, McIlroy missed a seven-foot putt for par at the first. He then followed up a nice birdie at three with a inevitable bogey six at four after pushing his tee shot so deep into trouble behind trees on the right, McIlroy had to hit out on to the adjacent eighth fairway.
Otherwise, the Ulsterman hit the ball quite well off the tee but was unlucky on a couple of occasions when it ran a foot or two into the rough, which is near-bottomless just inches from the fairway.
For the second day in succession, Tiger struggled to make anything but if he is to win a 15th Major tomorrow, Woods may point to the 15-footer he holed for an unlikely birdie four at the fourth as the moment when it all turned round.
There certainly was an air of renewed confidence about the 12-foot putt he holed to save par at the daunting fifth. An aura of hope once again seems to surround Woods as he bids for his first win at the Majors since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines... and it wasn't dented when he flubbed a chip from deep greenside rough on his way to a bogey at seven.
The pair are four shy of leaders Billy Horschel, who shot a superb 67, and Phil Mickelson who managed to find his first birdie of the day on the 18th to finish with a round of 72 having missed several short putts throughout the day. The pair are one clear of Luke Donald, Steve Stricker and Justin Rose.
The Irish story of the first day was certainly Kevin Phelan (22) who, no matter how far he goes in golf, will forever remember the first day he thrust himself into the company of the greats of world golf during one of the toughest rounds in recent years at the US Open.
Those who suggested Merion, at a trifling 6,996 yards, would be pistol-whipped by the modern professionals and yield the first 62 seen at golf's Major championships, were made to look pretty stupid during the first two days.
When the weather-hit first round eventually was completed at lunchtime yesterday, the average round score stood at 74.3 strokes, more than four-over. Just five players, led by Mickelson on three-under, managed to break par in the first round – which makes the 71 Phelan posted on Thursday look all the more creditable.
In his second round, however, Phelan suffered a double bogey on the ninth, which proved to be his final hole, before the light closed in to leave him on six over par for the tournament and battling to make the projected seven-over cut with nine holes of his second round to be completed today.
McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke endured especially tough conditions when they resumed play in their first round early yesterday in a bleak and blustery northern breeze. After sleeping on a three-putt bogey on 11, McIlroy soon found himself locked in a real early-morning battle with the East Course's brutal five-hole finishing stretch.
So even though he made bogey at 15, 17 and 18, the Holywood native was still upbeat after signing for the opening 73 which, at that point, tied him 46th on three-over with Woods, plus Harrington and Sergio Garcia.
Harrington had looked to be playing himself into contention when he got to within two shots of Horschel at one point yesterday, however, a double bogey at 15 in what proved to be his final hole of the day, saw the Dubliner slip to four over par for the tournament with the difficult final three holes still to be completed today.
Sadly, McDowell, who dropped three shots in the final three holes of his opening 76, including an ugly double-bogey six at 18, had little hope of salvation after beginning his second round with his second six in 18 hours at the pretty but potentially deadly par-four 11th.
Though he followed up with birdie at 12, the Portrush man's proud record of never missing the cut in seven previous US Opens would be rendered untenable when a bogey at 15 was followed by back-to-back doubles at 17 and 18.
McDowell wrapped up his second-round 77 at the short par-four 10th with his seventh double bogey in 36 hours and missed the weekend on 13-over. "That's pretty far over par but the course is that difficult and it's that long," he said.
"Naturally, I'm disappointed. It's not the way I wanted to play the last couple of days. But this place is very hard," added the 2010 champion.
Though he'd have preferred a dry, quick-running course, the wet weather doesn't entirely explain a muted performance, which bore more resemblance to McDowell's missed cuts at the Masters, Players Championship and BMW PGA than his two recent wins in the RBC Heritage and World Match Play.
"I'm temporarily dejected after struggling over the last couple of days... but that's golf," he said.
One must assume the 33-year-old might have felt the weight of his own expectations, though it was surprising to see the man ranked as No 1 in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour this year miss so many fairways.
Clarke, who has matched par just once in 10 rounds at the Majors and made just one of four cuts at golf's Grand Slams since lifting the Claret Jug at the 2011 British Open, certainly wasn't overburdened by expectation after an injury-ravaged six months. Still, little could have prepared the 44-year-old for the stunning roller-coaster ride he endured over the final eight holes of his first round, which included three birdies, two bogeys, a double-bogey, two treble-bogey sevens and not one par.
The 80 Clarke signed-for was his worst at the US Open since he posted an 83 on Saturday at Pebble Beach in 2000 yet, within an hour, he'd dusted himself down and embarked on a creditable second-round 75 which saw him miss the cut on 15-over.
US Open, Day 3, Live, Sky Sports 1, 5.0