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Gary Woodland Leads, Major Champions Lurk at 2019 U.S. Open


PEBBLE BEACH, CA – No matter how many haymakers he threw down the stretch Friday, Gary Woodland will not sleep well tonight. He may lead this 119th U.S. Open by two strokes. But Pebble Beach’s other name – the one they don’t put on merchandise in the prop shop – is Ol’ Double Bogey-by-the-sea, and at any moment a golfer’s ship crash upon the rocks of Monterey Bay or get blown clear to Laguna Seca on hurricane winds.

Worse still, the whole damn world is chasing Woodland. Pebble Beach has played far easier than it ever has in the five previous U.S. Opens it’s hosted, meaning the leader board is a block party. A whopping 31 players are under par, including nine major champions within six shots.

To his credit, Woodland executed the plan that’s been the script at Pebble for everyone in history except Tiger Woods in 2000. Attack the course at holes one through six, then hang on for the ride the rest of the way. He went low on the front, in particular the stretch of 1-6. He birdied one, then the short par-3 fifth, and six with a routine two putts. A 50-foot bomb across the ninth green gave him a fourth birdie on the side, a 65 for the day, (he started on the back), a 9-under 133 score, and momentum going into tomorrow.

But therein lies the problem: In golf, momentum is tomorrow’s first tee shot. And the gang on his heels is not just well-decorated, they’re downright predatory. They’ll chase him down if he stands still. They’ve done it already to win majors.

Take Justin Rose, who passed Phil Mickelson late at Merion to steal the 2013 U.S. Open. Rose followed his first round 65 with a 70 to put him at 7-under. Rose can win birdie-fests as he did taking the gold medal at the Olympics, or he can constrict you like a python as he did outlasting the field at Merion. Still, Rose has a weak spot right now: wildness. He’s hit just 19 or 36 greens and 16 of 28 fairways. That’s tied for 106th and 99th respectively. His 22 putts Thursday was sheer magic, but can that last four days on bumpy poa? Moreover, Rose could not take advantage of the early holes as Woodland did. He bogeyed one and four, both short, easy holes, though he did birdie the murderously long 524-yard par-5 second.

“I felt the momentum stopped a little bit for me, which is a shame, because I felt like 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 there’s some potential birdie holes,” Rose admitted candidly. “3, 4 was a little blip in the round. But managed to put it up behind me but two good pars on 8 and 9 is a good way to close out your round.”

There are not just pars, however, at this U.S. Open. There are birdies and bogeys out there, plenty of them. Just ask Louis Oosthuizen whose mercurial second round featured seven birdies, six bogeys, and just five pars, including a ludicrous bogey-birdie-bogey-bogey-birdie-birdie-bogie-birdie-PAR (gasp) back nine. Call it Lodewicus Theodorus Oosthuizen’s hell-fire, hair-raising, death-defying cavalcade of whimsy. He’s the amusement park ride that never stops.

Peaking yet again at a major, the 2010 Open Championship winner is looking to better his recent run of collecting the “Runner up slam,” for finishing second in every major since he broke through at St. Andrews. His 1-under 70 puts him at 6-under, three shots back.

Similarly, 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy’s 69 left him at 5-under, tied for fourth with Aaron Wise. He birdied one and seven, but then turned into Oosthuizen’s twin on the inward nine, carding three birdies, a bogey and a ghastly double at the par-5 14th.

“13 I wasn’t disciplined enough with my second shot. I was trying to hit something into that back right corner of the green when I’ve really been preaching middle of the greens all week,” Rory explained honestly. “But it was just the wedge shot on 14….I saw this morning what happened to Tiger, what happened to Jordan. I knew that that could happen. When you’re standing there with a wedge in your hand, the ball is above your feet on the fairway, you don’t really want it going left. It’s very easy to tug it just slightly off the hill and go into that heavy rough on the left just off the green. So I was sort of guarding against that, and I probably missed by four or five yards right of where I needed to. And it came back down the hill.”

Still, McIlroy, winner of four majors championships, bounced back with consecutive birdies at 15 and 16. A group at 4-under, just five shots back of Woodland, includes defending back-to-back champion Brooks Koepka, vying to join Wilie Anderson as the only three-time consecutive champion of this event. He’s joined by Chez Reavie, Chesson Hadley, and Matt Kuchar who chipped in for eagle on 18.

“I’m able to use a lot more irons, but if I’m hitting shorter clubs, then I should be able to put it in the fairway. I did a good job of that today,” Koepka said matter-of-factly. “I hit 5-iron or 3-iron just as far as most guys hit their 3-wood,” he added haughtily.

A group of nine players at 3-under includes five major champions: Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell (who won the Open in 2010, the last time it was played here at Pebble), Henrik Stenson, and Zach Johnson, who if he wins this week will have been victorious at Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, and Augusta…joining Woods and Nicklaus as the only players in history to hit that trifecta. Nice company.

Even Tiger is still lurking. He’s played poorly, but still managed to scrape together an Even par score. Here’s the bad news: he’s mad. You don’t want the Tiger to feel like his tail’s been pulled. Check out this exchange with a reporter:

Q. Tiger, are you steaming?
TIGER WOODS: Yeah, I am. Not a very good finish.

Q. Clearly not the way you want to finish. How disappointed are you?
TIGER WOODS: Yeah, I’m a little hot right now. I just signed my card about a minute ago. So need a little time to cool down a little bit.

Then he gathered himself.

“Right now I’m still in the ball game. There’s so many guys with a chance to win. We’ve got a long way to go, and, you know, we’ll see how it shapes up for tomorrow.”

And so as Woodland goes to sleep, his thoughts are heavy with the lowest cut in years, the greatest number of former major
winners nipping at hits heels, and a slumbering monster that could waken any time: the wind. He’s been in this situation before – last August at Bellerive when he led after both rounds one and two. His 64-66=130 aggregate tied the PGA Championship 36 hole record. He shot even par on the weekend though, and Koepka powered through him like Australia II zoomed past Dennis “I blew the America’s Cup” Conner.

Plus, Pebble Beach is not Bellerive, and the PGA setup is not – a few exceptions aside – not U.S. Open setup. We haven’t begun to see Pebble’s fiercest teeth yet. A crucible, that’s what Pebble feels like on the weekend. It melted Woods, Els, and Mickelson in 2010 on Sunday. It kept everyone but Tiger over par in 2000 and no one broke par in 1972, Jack’s winning aggregate was 290, 2-over.

Still, Woodland is nothing if not plucky.

“I’ve been in this position before. Last year in August at Bellerive and didn’t come out where I wanted to but I learned a lot from that,” he said. I don’t have to be perfect with my ball striking, because I have other things that can pick me up, that’s been a big confidence boost for me, knowing I don’t have to be perfect I can still contend and have a chance to win.”