SOUTHAMPTON, NY – Pre-eminent sports writer Rick Reilly’s hat said it all.
“Pray For Birdies,” it blared in red, white and blue.
It feels like an old-school U.S. Open even though the golf course is as wide as a weekend bogey golfer could wish for. Despite the widest fairways in modern tournament history, at the halfway point of the 118th U.S. Open at venerable Shinnecock Hills, only world number one and 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson is under par. His 136 aggregate for the two days (4-under) leads by four shots over Scott Piercy and Charlie Hoffman who are even par, but a collection of well-decorated veterans are within shouting distance.
Five shots back at 1-over lurk two former U.S. Open champions in Justin Rose (the 2013 champion from Merion) and Brooks Koepka, the defending champion, and 2016 Open Championship winner Henrik Stenson. But with Shinnecock playing fiercely, its fiendish green complexes sending balls scurrying in any and every direction, will anyone be able to make up ground on Dustin Johnson?
If it’s “Pray for Birdies,” like Reilly’s hat says, probably not. If the course is set up to be the same torture chamber it was on Thursday or if the wind blows from the wrong direction, no one will be able to charge far enough to catch Dustin Johnson except equally-long hitting Brooks Koepka. Johnson broke out of Thursday’s log-jam where four players shot 1-under 69s with a 67 that featured four birdies on the day balanced a lone bogey at the tenth. The highlight was a 45-footer across the green on the diabolical par-3 seventh.
Playing partner Tiger Woods could only watch in awe of that putt. The ball hung tantalizingly on the lip like Tiger’s chip at 16 at Augusta in the 2005 Masters, before dropping in setting off a tumultuous ovation from the fans.
“I knew, obviously, about halfway there it was on a really good line if it would just get to the hole, which I guess it dropped right in the front door,” Johnson surmised. “I feel like I got good control of the speed. I feel like I’ve got good feel on the greens right now. I putted well for the first two days. My speed’s been really good. Even when I’ve had long putts, I’ve got it up there pretty close to the hole. And, you know, you get difficult putts out here with a lot of break on them, and I feel like I’m seeing the lines pretty well right now.”
It was only Koepka and English heartthrob Tommy Fleetwood of the Rolling Stones hairdo that played any better yesterday. Both fired 4-under 66s to finish at 141, 1-over for the tournament. And if the weather conditions and set up remain the same, only those two long hitters appear to be able to keep pace with Johnson. Slim effete golfers could get steamrolled by the bigger, broader, burlier Johnson, who is making a habit of turning Golden Age classic courses into bomb and gouge paradises. He already won at Oakmont in 2016, and Oakmont is a grassy guillotine masquerading as a major championship venue.
Indeed a Johnson-Koepka battle tomorrow would be fascinating. Johnson is something of a mentor-meets-big brother-meets-kindred spirit to Koepka. Both are cut form the same “Ball Go Far!” cloth. Both were incendiary talents in their younger days who had to overcome significant challenges on their way to the major championship winner’s circle. And Johnson let Koepka shack up with him while Koepka was renovating his home.
“Bro! Stay with me! I’ve got plenty of space, and I’ll teach you how to drive a boat,” Johnson invited, as the story goes, and friendship was born in tempered steel and forged irons. Koepka got a bird’s eye view of Johnson’s stratospheric rise to the World Number One position and the U.S. Open title. But he also got to lift weights with him, (they have the same trainer – Joey Diovisalvi ) practice with him, and trash talks with him.
“Take off your diaper and start lifting some real weight,” Johnson told Koepka, according to S.I. writer Alan Shipnuck.
Koeopka won’t be intimidated by DJ’s length, nor will his killer instinct be dulled simply because he’s five shots back. Indeed, Koepka got to page one of the leader board by rattling off six birdies in 11 holes to close out Friday’s round, and he went from the cut line to tied for fourth.
“Obviously, you don’t want to be that many back. But it’s a U.S. Open, so disaster’s always around the corner. You never know what’s going to happen. You just keep putting the ball in play, hitting greens and try to sneak in a few birdies when you can,” Koepka explained, when asked about the five shot deficit. “[But] I feel like I’ve got some momentum on my side. Obviously, finishing with six birdies, I played really solid.”
As an aside, Friday marks the 16th consecutive cut made by Koepka in a major, the second longest streak on Tour. (Steve Stricker at 39 is first, for those of you scoring at home.
As for Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, both as equally well-decorated as Johnson and Koepka, they are birdie machines…when conditions allow. They have more ground to cover than Koepka simply because they are not as long as Dustin.
“Some guys out here start a stroke or two behind him because of his length,” Graeme McDowell noted pre-tournament. He followed that with “Here, not so much,” but he’s been wrong the first two days. Sure, Stenson closed the 2016 Open Championship with a 63 to race past Phil Mickelson, but can he close the gap over the final 36 holes?
“I still don’t feel I played that great tee to green. I’ve hit a lot of fairways [22 of 28 for 79%] and a lot of greens [25 of 36 for 70%], but not with the quality of strike I would have liked and the control of direction all the time,” he lamented.
Meanwhile Justin Rose triumphed at Merion in 2013 from two strokes behind Phil Mickelson by playing consistent, careful, patient golf. His final 36 hole tally of 71-70 was good enough to hang on while others fell away like leaves, but Dustin appears to far ahead to play wait-and-see, and Shinnecock does not look like it will surrender the kind of weekend charge Rose or the others at 1-ovber need to catch Johnson, who has only carded four bogeys the entire week.
Pray for birdies? It’s funny because it’s true. The way he’s playing, they’ll need a novena at Shinnecock to catch Dustin Johnson.