Route 66 took millions from Chicago to the US west coast for more than 60 years and it looks like the road to success for Shane Lowry and Séamus Power today after they slipped six and eight shots behind Justin Thomas in the US PGA at Southern Hills.
Lowry played like the Major champion he is for the first 10 holes, missing just one fairway and only three greens in winds gusting over 25mph as he picked up back to back birdies at the 13th and 14th to jump to within three shots off the lead on two-under.
But with the greens uncut and unrolled, he sandwiched a double-bogey six at the fourth (taking two attempts to escape a greenside bunker) between three-putt bogeys at the second and eighth.
It added up to a homeward 39 for a two-over 72 that left him eight strokes behind 2017 champion Thomas, who carded a second successive 67 to lead by three shots in the clubhouse from Matt Fitzpatrick (69) on six-under.
It was a far better day for the West Waterford hero Power, who continues to go from strength to strength in the Majors.
After going 74-74-74-70 to finish tied 27th on his Masters debut, the Tooraneena man (35) followed an opening 71 with an excellent one-under 69 to continue his upward trend.
The Waterford man was just inside the top 20 and one of just 10 players in the morning wave to break par compared to 17 on Thursday morning.
Southern Hills remains a beguiling major championship test – wide enough to tempt you to open your shoulders but unforgiving of shots hit out of position given its “flyer rough”, sloping greens and bunkers filled with a rough grade of sand that makes it difficult to generate spin.
Power looked like a veteran rather than a rookie as he birdied the second from four feet, gave that shot back at the third after getting a flyer from the rough but then made a 36 footer at the 10th and wedged to five feet at the 13th to go two-under for the day.
But while he missed the 15th fairway, bunkered his approach and missed a bobbling, downhill five-footer for par, he was pleased to shoot in the 60s for the first time in a major and leave himself within striking distance should he shoot another round in the sixties today.
“It was tough going at the start,” Power said. “Those gusts early were nasty. It was a lot of good stuff and I could’ve been a little bit better down the stretch there, but overall I’m pleased.
“It was tough going on the greens. They were bumpy and obviously not having been rolled or cut, it was tough to make birdies again. Even if you hit it to 10 feet, sometimes you had a putt with two feet of break and the ball bouncing all over the place.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating from 120 yards to hit in 15 or 20 feet left or right of the hole, but then when you get up there, you’ve got a reasonable chance even if it doesn’t go in.
“I haven’t been able to make enough of those 15 or 20 footers as of yet. So hopefully, they can get a roller on those greens and I can get the speed down a bit better and make a few of them tomorrow.”
Power prides himself on his course management and he admitted Southern Hills is a relentless mental test.
“I am putting well but not quite making the middle-distance ones yet,” said Power, who was in the top 10 for strokes gained from tee to green but outside the top 80 for putting. “Getting something going on the greens is the toughest part because it’s tough to make those 20 footers.
“Standing in the fairway knowing it’s tough to make those putts means it’s difficult to stay patient because you want to go at it. But the moment you go at one and you get a little short-sided, you can drop one or two. So it’s right on the edge.”
As Power and Lowry finished, overnight leader McIlroy headed off in more benign conditions on five-under, leaving his compatriots praying the wind continued to blow.
“Your kind of hoping the lead is not going to get too far away,” Power said. “But I’m going to need a couple of good rounds over the weekend and see what happens.”
Lowry knows he could need a 66 to have a chance on Sunday after an up-and-down, two-over 72.
He started impressively in the worst of the wind, rifling a 250-yard three-iron to 18 feet at the par-five 13th (his fourth), where he lipped out for eagle, then hit a five-iron to 17 feet at the next and rolled in the putt for a two to move into the top 10 on two-under for the day.
But he knocked a 50 footer 10 feet past at the second (his 11th), then caught a strong gust and short-sided himself in sand at the fourth, eventually walking off with a double-bogey six, it was a battle coming home.
Another three-putt, this time he came up six feet shot from 40 feet at the eighth, deflated him before he gamely two-putted from 74 feet for a closing par.
“I don’t feel like I did much wrong today, to be honest,” Lowry said after coming home in 39. “Disappointing to play the nine holes like that.
“I would have liked to have been around par or better and in a nice spot going into the weekend, so I’ve got a bit of work now.
“I’m just hoping that the afternoon guys don’t go out and get too nice a weather and shoot too low a score. If I can go out and shoot two, three or four-under tomorrow, I hope that gives me an opportunity on Sunday.”
Describing the difficulty of the challenge, Lowry said: “If you miss a fairway, just go up and hit it and start praying. Honestly, as regards flyers, it’s the worst rough I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible.”
As for the double-bogey, he said: “To be honest, I feel like I hit six good shots there and made double. I definitely made four good shots and had a 10-footer for bogey. It’s one of those, as I said at the start of the week, you have to take stuff like that on the chin and move on.”
“I was doing all the right things today and the fourth just kills your momentum more than anything. You make a bogey you can kind of deal with it. You make a double it’s a kick in the you-know-what.
“I dug my feet in the bunker and about an inch under there it’s like pure concrete. There was more sand where my ball was. They’re very inconsistent. Not great.
“Hopefully I get out there in the morning when it’s going to be a little colder, a little bit of a breeze and I can shoot something in the red and put myself there or thereabouts come Sunday.”
Southern Hills does yield rounds in the sixties, as Brooks Koepka proved with a 67 alongside Lowry to join him on two-over as Thomas shot a second successive 67 to take the lead.
“I’m very pleased,” Thomas said after a closing birdie at the ninth. “The conditions were obviously very difficult.
“I stayed very patient, tried to get in my own little world and get in a zone and just tried to execute each shot the best I could. I felt we did a great job of that and am glad to have a good round to show for it.”