THE strain imposed by golf's most searching test, was etched deep into the faces of leading challengers by the halfway stage of the 112th US Open at The Olympic Club. Among those to buckle under the strain was Rory McIlroy, who missed his fourth cut in five events.
World No 1 Luke Donald also failed to match the qualifying target of 148, which was cruelly deceptive at eight-over par. But Tiger Woods, with an object lesson in how to apply power to telling effect, claimed a share of the halfway lead with Jim Furyk and David Toms on one-under par.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion, is responding to a challenge not unlike the one he mastered at Pebble Beach and Padraig Harrington, whose Major successes were effectively shaped by this venue in 1998, had an admirable second-round 70 to remain where he had been on Thursday evening, in a share of 18th place.
Meanwhile, Ireland's fourth challenger, Peter Lawrie (74, 77), headed for home in a positive mood after experiencing his first taste of competition at this level.
From an elevated leaderboard position of two-under par after his first four holes on Thursday, he was 13-over par for the remaining 32 yet carded only one double-bogey -- an ugly six on the second on Friday.
"It's been a bit of an eye-opener this week to see how tough a course set-up can be," he acknowledged. "There's not much enjoyment to be had from missing the cut and going home early, but I played nicely in patches and gave myself some chances. The experience has given me a taste for more, because I feel like my game is good enough to compete out here. On my day, I'm no worse than most of these other guys out here, so there's no reason why I can't play in more Majors."
Furyk, the 2003 champion at Olympia Fields, captured the essence of the challenge when he said: "The way the golf course is set up, it's get the ball in the fairway or in a playable spot as best you can; get the ball on the green or in a playable spot as best you can and then try and make par."
In terms of the course set-up, this is the first time that Mike Davis has got precisely what he planned since his appointment as executive director of the US Golf Association early last year. Heavy rain prior to Congressional made the greens there far too receptive for his liking.
But The Olympic Club has the firmness and bounce to deliver what Davis would consider to be the perfect test of skill and patience. As the USGA like to proclaim rather pompously: "Our objective is not to embarrass the best golfers in the world, but to identify them."
The final two rounds, when the screw is tightened even further through green-speeds and pin-placements, will determine whether they are going to achieve that objective. Either way, the list of casualties so far includes such notables as Masters champion Bubba Watson and $10m FedEx Cup winner Billy Haas, along with Lucas Glover, Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy and, of course, McIlroy and Donald.
It may be no more than coincidental that the four previous stagings at this venue culminated in shock defeats for Ben Hogan (by Jack Fleck), Arnold Palmer (by Billy Casper), Tom Watson (by Scott Simpson) and Payne Stewart (by Lee Janzen). Still, victory for a favourite would be somewhat reassuring to the sceptics in our midst.
In this context, Woods has maintained impressive progress, drawing sensibly on his reserves of power by using a two-iron off the tee on the tighter, driving holes, just as he did so effectively when capturing a third Open championship on the fiery linkland of Hoylake in 2006. On this occasion, he leads in driving accuracy having found 21 of 28 fairways.
Yet from leading on his own at two-under, his second-round might have unravelled after successive bogeys at the fifth (three putts), sixth and seventh (three putts), but he remained admirably patient, drawing on vast experience at this level. As he suggested later: "It was a tough little stretch but, hey, we'd got a lot of holes to go. I had some easier holes coming up." Indeed he had. Birdies at the 10th and 13th brought him home in 34.
By way of contrast, it is to be hoped that this latest jolt for McIlroy will help speed up the maturing process. He didn't drive the ball well, hitting only 15 out of 28 fairways, and his problems were compounded by poor concentration at critical times on the greens.
All of which is entirely understandable, given that he is only a month past his 23rd birthday. Still, he should be more careful to engage gear before offering post-round excuses like this one on Friday evening -- "We're not used to having to land balls before the edge of greens to let them run on." This from a player whose formative golfing years were spent on links terrain.
As it happens, he plans to spend the next week "playing some links golf" in preparation for the Irish Open at Royal Portrush. Meanwhile he acknowledged that it was tough, bowing out of the defence of his title before the weekend. "The last six weeks have made me realise it doesn't come easy to you all the time," he said. "But I've still seen enough good stuff in the rounds to give me hope that it's not very far away."
McDowell, who was tied 12th in the Masters two months ago, obviously coped better, though he admitted: "It's just tough to have fun out there. I got to be honest, it's just a brutal test of golf." Because of the configuration of the course, he was among those who started on the ninth and had the disappointment of a closing bogey at the short eighth, where his tee-shot was blocked right.
Significantly, however, he hit 20 out of 28 fairways to be tied second in that category and is tied eighth in greens in regulation, hitting to targets which are slightly larger though still quite similar to those at Pebble Beach. "I'm really happy to be where I am," he said. "As for the weekend: levelish (level par) looks good. There's no rain forecast and as this golf course gets firmer and firmer, I don't see the scoring getting much away from that."
When this championship was last at Olympic in 1998, Harrington, by his own admission, played to the best of his ability and yet could finish no better than tied 32nd. Which brought him to Bob Torrance a few weeks later, seeking a total overhaul of his technique. Fourteen years on, he is still searching. Now, it is for his sadly departed authority with the blade. Even when finding the target, the putter-head doesn't have the confident acceleration of his halcyon days. Still, there was enormous merit in a second-round 70 which contained birdies at the fourth, seventh, eight and at the long 16th, which he double-bogeyed on Thursday.
"I really like the golf course but you have to be defensive out there," he admitted after making his 11th cut in 15 US Opens. "The greens are firm and you're just a little bit apprehensive all the time. I would like to have relaxed a little bit more and gone after one or two chances, but I would take 70 every day out there.
"I'm starting to feel better about my putting and at four over, I'm going to have to find some more birdies. And there's plenty of them out there." Indeed there are. In fact with seven apiece, he and McDowell are tied second in the birdie count for the championship so far behind Michael Thompson, the surprise first-round leader.
Sunday Indo Sport