Late birdie pulls Mickelson into tie

Updated: June 15, 2013, 11:52 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ARDMORE, Pa. -- It didn't take long to figure out who was winning the U.S. Open on Friday: Merion.

The historic course in suburban Philadelphia rose up and put down any thought it could be manhandled, with perhaps some help from the United States Golf Association.

Despite a week's worth of rain and soft conditions that many figured would make the East Course vulnerable, scoring was in line with the typically high numbers often seen at the year's second major championship.

Only two players got to the clubhouse Friday under par through 36 holes: first-round leader Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel, who hit all 18 greens in regulation in a 3-under 67 that was the round of the tournament. They are at 1-under 139.

Steve Stricker, Luke Donald and Justin Rose also got to the clubhouse before darkness halted the second round, finishing a stroke back.

Sixty-eight players -- nearly half the field -- completed the second round Saturday morning before the 36-hole cut, which came at 8 over.

They included Ian Poulter, who tried to join the leaders but had a bad lie in a bunker at No. 16 and his approach rolled off the back edge of the green at the 18th. The two bogeys sank him from even par to 2 over after his round of 71.

"I'm three off the lead in the U.S. Open," Poulter said. "And that's the difference of one hole. You can make birdie and someone can make double. I'm right in position and right there where I want to be. It's going to be a fun weekend."

Mickelson was on the 18th hole when the horn sounded to signal that play was suspended. The rules allow a player to complete the hole, and Mickelson had rifled a second shot from 240 yards onto the left side of the green. He rolled in the 20-footer for his only birdie of the day, salvaging a 72 after a frustrating day on the greens.

"It felt great. I wasn't expecting birdie there," Mickelson said. "It's a very difficult hole. I got shut out today. I played really well. Even though I shot 2 over, it was the birdie opportunities that I didn't capitalize on. Had I made one on 2 or that birdie on 8 or 9 or 11, I would have changed kind of the momentum of the round. I played well today even though I didn't feel the score was what I thought it should be."

He wasn't alone.

Merion was a beast Friday, averaging more than 74.6 strokes and inflicting its share of pain. Of the rounds completed, only three were under par and 10 were in the 80s.

Tiger Woods, dealing with a problematic left elbow, was one of just five players in the morning wave to shoot par or better on the 6,996-yard course, which is hosting the U.S. Open for the fifth time. His even-par 70, which had its share of miscues, nonetheless kept him in the tournament. He is tied for 17th, four strokes back.

"It's hard with the wind and the pin locations," said Woods, who never has been over par through 36 holes of a PGA Tour tournament and gone on to win. "They're really tough. We knew they were going to be in [tough] areas, but we didn't think they were going to be as severe as they are."

Among the casualties at Merion were a slew of major champions.

Graeme McDowell, a pre-tournament favorite, was 13 over through two rounds. David Toms was 12 over. Jose Maria Olazabal shot 81 on Friday. Jim Furyk finished at 16 over. Angel Cabrera, who lost in a playoff to Adam Scott at the Masters, and Darren Clarke were 15 over.

Donald, who took the lead outright at one point at 4 under, had a stretch of five bogeys in six holes, including four straight.

"U.S. Opens get harder as the week goes on," Donald said. "The pins today were a lot more tucked. They were tougher to get to. A few were on little hills or slopes. It's very difficult to make those putts when the ball is breaking so much."

Horschel, 26, won his first PGA Tour event earlier this year at the Zurich Classic, culminating a stretch of four top-10 finishes. He is playing in just his second U.S. Open.

"I was not in the zone, trust me," Horschel said. "The 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 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. I didn't know I hit every green until I walked off 18. It's a cool thing. I've done it plenty of times in my career; obviously it's a U.S. Open, but I think the softness of the greens helped that."

The lack of firmness around Merion was expected to lead to low scoring, which has yet to happen. Some wondered whether the U.S. Open scoring record of 268 -- by Rory McIlroy in 2011 -- was in danger.

"Am I surprised? Absolutely not," Woods said. "Unless you played practice rounds out here and you've seen the golf course, you don't realize how difficult it is. Because the short holes are short, but if you miss the fairway, you can't get the ball on the green. And the longer holes are brutal. And this is probably the stiffest set of par-3s we ever face. And then they've thrown some of the pin locations in that they have, and it's really tough."

Woods had to complete seven holes of his first round early Friday morning and played them in 1 over to shoot 73.

In the second round, he made three birdies and three bogeys but had several important par saves with good putts. Although he missed several good birdie opportunities, including on some of the toughest holes, his ability to get par putts to drop kept him in the tournament.

The No. 1-ranked player in the world, Woods is tied with McIlroy, who also shot 73-70.

"I'm very happy," said McIlroy, No. 2 in the world. "Right in there for the weekend. I don't think I'll be too far away by the end of the day. In a nice position going into the last two days."

That would be the same for Woods, assuming he can move past the elbow issue that is clearly bothering him but he is not divulging much about.

Woods said the injury, which was not noticed until he hit a shot out of the rough on the first hole Thursday, first occurred "a few weeks ago." He said it happened at The Players Championship but did not disclose when or where.

The injury, Woods said, would not prevent him from playing if it were a regular event, and he has a simple outlook for the weekend.

"Just keep grinding," he said. "You just don't ever know what the winning score is going to be. You don't know if the guys are going to come back. We have a long way to go, and these conditions aren't going to get any easier. They're going to get more difficult. As the fairways start drying out, the ball is going to pick up mud and you're going to get bad breaks."

Mickelson, who turns 43 on Sunday, is attempting to win his first U.S. Open after a record five runner-up finishes without a victory.

"It feels good being in contention heading into the weekend," he said. "There are a lot of players right there, around par, a couple over. I think this golf course provides a chance to shoot a low round, even though not many players have done it and it's difficult. If you play good golf, there's a lot of birdie holes where you can make birdies and shoot a 60s round. The hard holes are very tough pars."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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