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US Open: Merion has the players on a tight leash; Mickelson & Horschel share halfway lead

Anand Datla
FEATURED COLUMNIST
15 Jun 2013, 10:24 IST
 Phil Mickelson of the United States walks off the 14th green during Round Two of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 14, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.  (Getty Images)

Phil Mickelson of the United States walks off the 14th green during Round Two of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 14, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)

The sun shone bright over the Merion Club as if the weather Gods were making it up to the golfers for tormenting them with a soggy mess on Thursday. The greens though had a mind of their own, teasing and taunting the players with myriad variations in pace and direction. The iconic course reigned in all but two players to even par or worse setting the tone for a gruelling weekend of action.

Billy Horschel sized up the course in the morning, with a 72 in the first round, before unleashing a 67 that catapulted him into a share of the halfway lead with Phil Mickelson. The second round was far from complete; the delay meant that nearly 70 of the 156 golfers will have to race on Saturday to complete their second round. Horschel and Mickelson have a one shot lead over Luke Donald, Justin Rose, Steve Stricker, Cheng-Tsung Pan (9 holes) and Ian Poulter (14 holes).

When Horschel retired to the clubhouse at 1 under, overnight leader Mickelson was only beginning his round. Mickelson dropped a shot at the first to fall to 2 under and Nicolas Colsaerts accepted the invitation with a terrific approach that left him with an eagle opportunity at the second hole. The Belgian missed that putt but tapped in for a birdie and a share of the early second round lead after two holes. But bogies at 3, 5, 9 and 16 cost him dear as he was forced to settle for a 72 that left him in eighth along with four others.

Meanwhile, Mickelson fared no better. The left-handed American surrendered two more bogies at 12 and 13 and only a birdie at the last hole salvaged a 72 allowing him to enjoy a share of the midway lead. It was a tough grind for the big man, who will turn 43 on Sunday. It could be some celebration if he could find himself hunting for a maiden US Open title.

“I had many opportunities on holes I should be able to birdie but didn’t capitalise, but I played the hard holes extremely well and made pars,” said Mickelson. “I fought hard, hung in there, even though the score wasn’t what I wanted.”

Woods dropped shots at the 14th and 18th to fall back to four over, but he recovered a little when he made a birdie at the second hole. The embattled man from Florida lingered at two over for a little while before giving one back to the course on the 7th hole. Eventually, Tiger settled for a 70 that left him at three over going into the weekend.

“Unless you have played practice rounds out here and you’ve seen the golf course, you don’t realise how difficult it is,” said Woods. “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 that we ever face.”

Rory McIlroy was also at three over alongside Tiger, Ernie Els and three others after he managed an exasperating 70 in the second round. The Irishman made four birdies, but the course struck back with even number of bogeys leaving McIlroy tearing his hair in frustration.

“It was solid. It felt like every time I made a birdie, I made a bogey straight away. It’s a course you feel like you can shoot a score but because of the pins, it’s tricky,” said McIlroy before consoling himself. “But I’m there for the weekend and I’m happy about that. It tests every aspect of your game. You’ve got to drive it well, be very tactical. There were people talking about 63s and 64s at the start of the week but I never saw it at all.”

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Luke Donald made a fine 68 in the first round, but five bogeys between the 2nd and 7th holes left him tormented. Donald made a respectable recovery with birdies at 9, 12 and 13, eventually settling for a 72 that left him even par heading into the weekend. “At US Opens you need everything to work for you. I got off to a great start, said Donald. “It’s always nice to get off to a strong start but I was ultimately disappointed to finish the way I did, I misread a couple of putts which was disappointing.”

 Luke Donald of England hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during Round Two of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 14, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Luke Donald of England hits his tee shot on the 18th hole during Round Two of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 14, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)

In the lead up to the event, analysts predicted that Merion will prove to be an easy lay for the current crop of power golfers. The suggestion seems to have infuriated the legendary course, which counts among its suitors, fine gentlemen such as Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino.

The East Course has struck at those suggestions with the vengeance of an insulted queen to force as many as 22 scores in the 80s at the end of the first two rounds. The gauntlet has been thrown and the man seeking Merion’s hand will have to grind out patiently and stay focused in the moment.

It only takes one bad moment to ruin an entire round. Ask John Nieporte, who is making his US Open debut at the ripe age 46. The American might have qualified after making a hole in one in the sectional qualifiers, but Merion has treated him shabbily.

The first round 78 was followed by an even more bruising 84, the worst round of the day to leave him licking his wounds at 22 over par. Do not expect any old fashioned mercy from the wicked woman this weekend as she battles the golfers to restore her fine reputation.

The knife that slices the top 60 and ties to contest this weekend is believed to fall at seven over par, but we will have to wait till Saturday to see the cut happen at the completion of the second round.

Select Scores:

-1: Mickelson (US), Horschel (US)
Even: Donald (Eng), Rose (Eng), Stricker (US), Poulter (Eng, after 14), Pan (Tai, 9)
+1: Senden (Aus), Colsaerts (Bel), Kelly (US, 12), Hoffman (US, 13), Kim (US, 11)

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