SAN FRANCISCO – There is, as the saying goes, a bit of credibility when it comes to Ernie Els and this U.S. Open business. After all, he’s playing in it for the 20th time, he’s a two-time champion, and just two years ago he nearly rekindled the magic with a third win at Pebble Beach.
In other words, he knows the character of this championship, so after shooting one of six sub-par rounds in the morning, a 1 under 69, the Big Easy took a big sigh and said he was glad the round was over.
“I scrambled like hell out there,” Els said, and then he shook his head.
“If there’s any wind it’s going to be a joke out there. No one will break par this afternoon.”
Three-under for his first 12 holes, Els shook off consecutive bogeys at three, four, and five with a birdie at seven and felt relieved to be through 36 holes at 4 over 144. He was five behind the clubhouse leader, but more than that, Els was settled into a U.S. Open frame of mind.
You better be at The Olympic Club, which has been set up to serve notice that competitors are no longer at Congressional, where Rory McIlroy posted a winning score of 16 under last year.
“Last year played as easy as anything I’ve ever seen,” Els said. “This year, they’ve put the teeth back into it.”
One of the sharpest teeth is the par-5 16th. Stretched to 660 yards Thursday, Els pulled his drive left, slammed a recover shot into a concession stands area, took a drop that sunk into a deep hole, and wound up making triple-bogey. Friday, the hole was only 609, but still, Els needed to make a 7-footer to save par.
“It’s a hell of a hole, but the pin placement (Thursday) was a joke,” Els said, shaking his head. Then he shrugged his massive shoulders. “But that’s why it’s the U.S. Open. It is what it is (but) I think it’s on the edge.”
Besides the likelihood that the winning score will not come close to matching what McIlroy shot a year ago, Els said there was something else he was sure of: “Stats are a joke. You can throw them out the window.”
He explained that you can hit a rash of drives that hit the fairway in optimum spots “and not one of them will stay in the fairway,” Els said. “Stats? Don’t even look at them. It’s almost like links golf, until it’s in the hole it doesn’t matter.”
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BAD SHOT, BAD HOLE, BUT GOOD DAY: The birdie at the par 4 fifth had his engines revved and then Hunter Mahan drove it perfectly at the par 4 sixth.
Yes, he was looking to keep the momentum going, but one pulled swing later and Mahan was trying to figure out how to get himself out of a jam. His ball having gone well left of the green, Mahan discovered he had a few challenges.
“It’s very dry over there, super dry, and there’s a pretty good slope,” he said. “And the grass is really hard underneath.”
So difficult was the shot that Mahan advanced it only a short distance, then he fluffed his next one, too. It wasn’t until his third wedge shot – his fifth overall – that he got his ball on the green and after two putts he walked to the seventh tee with a triple-bogey, now 2 over on his round, 4 over for the tournament.
Hardly happy, yes, yet Mahan wasn’t beating himself up.
“I played good today,” he said after pulling himself together to shoot 71 and get halfway home at 3 over 143. “Other than (the sixth) I hit a lot of good shots and had a lot of good swings. I just hit a bad shot in a bad spot.”
You can say this for Mahan, he knows the other end of the major championship story and it’s less enjoyable than what he’s involved with this week. Last year, Mahan missed the cut at the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the Open Championship and there’s not a more miserable feeling for a tour guy than to leave early from a major.
This year, Mahan is scripting a different story. Having finished in a share of 12th at the Masters, he followed that triple-bogey at six with birdies at 7, 11, and 13 and could focus on getting into contention, not just being low 60 and ties.
“You never feel comfortable on Friday, knowing you can’t miss the cut,” Mahan said. “When you do, it’s easy to make a few, silly mistakes.”
When he finished, Mahan was just four behind the clubhouse leader, Jim Furyk at 1 under, but being the U.S. Open, he felt comfortable about one thing. “No one,” he said, “is going to pull away, so keep your head up, keep swinging, because everyone’s going to make mistakes.”
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SAVED BY THE PUTTER: Blake Adams is accustomed to hitting driver to a small target. There’s a 14-yard-wide road on his property in Nunez, Ga., that doubles as a driving range. The road is lined by 17-year-old pine trees and is part of a backyard practice area on Adams’ 350-acre property. His home course is about 45 minutes from his house. “There’s no red lights, no caution lights. We have a few churches, a post office and that’s about it,” Adams said.
It wasn’t good driving that got Adams in contention at the U.S. Open, though. No, it was good putting.
“That’s what’s disappointing, is I can hit it down a 14-yard-wide fairway and I hit it all over the lot today,” Adams said. “I made some really, really tough putts.”
Adams is at 2-over 142 (72-70) in his first U.S. Open. “I’ve been hanging around,” he said. “I haven’t had my best stuff, but I hope the next two days will be pretty special.”
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NO MORE UNDER THE RADAR: A year ago, Jason Dufner was just another face in a 156-player field, a guy winless in his PGA Tour career and one who had never finished better than T-33 in the U.S. Open.
This year he’s seen as a viable conteder at The Olympic Club, thanks to a pair of PGA Tour wins and nearly a third.
So, below the radar or not below the radar, which is better?
Dufner just shrugged.
“I feel pretty good about my game. I don’t pay very much attention to the stuff,” Dufner said. “I feel the (U.S.) Open is a pretty good setup for me, the way I play, so I prepared the same way I’ve been doing with the majors here of late.”