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Puzzling Stranger, Promising Young Gun Lead U.S. Open at Torrey Pines

JOURNEYMAN PROS LIKE ENGLAND’S RICHARD BLAND OFTEN LEAD THE U.S. OPEN EARLY, BUT MANY FALTER LATE.

At a U.S. Open where PGA Tour uber-stars and wily veterans were expected to have an advantage a puzzling stranger and a promising young gun hold the lead after 36 holes at 5-under. England’s Richard Bland, obscure even in his own country, fired a dazzling 67, balancing seven birdies against three bogeys, while American Russell Henley, the first round co-leader, carded a 70 to hold a one shot lead over South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and American Matthew Wolff, last year’s runner-up to Bryson DeChambeau at Winged Foot West. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and Spanish star Jon Rahm are two shots back at 3-under. Rahm’s first PGA Tour victory came at Torrey Pines in 2017.

At 48 years old, Bland is the oldest player to ever hold the 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open, a factoid that would seem insignificant if not for Phil Mickelson’s epic triumph at Kiawah Island one month ago, where just seventeen days shy of age 51, he shattered golf’s all-time record for oldest major champion. Should he win, Bland will be the oldest U.S. Open champion, eclipsing the mark set by a 45-year old Hale Irwin in 1990 at Medinah.

For his part, Bland looked as unfamiliar at his press conference as he does in the winner’s circle. He hadn’t won in 478 starts on the European Tour before scoring enough points in a short series of events held specifically for someone from the European Tour to qualify for the Open who otherwise was not exempt or did not qualify. It’s “category 12” for those of you scoring at home – “From the three-event U.S. Open 2021 European Qualifying Series (Betfred British Masters, Made in HimmerLand Championship and Porsche European Open), the top 10 aggregate points earners that are not otherwise exempt.”

Bland won the “Betford British Masters,” then – and insert voice of Tiger Woods trolling PGA Tour commish Tim Finchem when you read this – “scored enough points” to win the series that replaced USGA local qualifying in England. When asked about the whoop and crash in celebration of his finally winning after decades of close calls, playoff losses, and heartbreaks, Bland – who spent the interview looking around awkwardly, staring at the microphone like it was a live scorpion, and handling himself like a Dad with a Dad Bod listening to Dad Rock – Bland was refreshingly warm and candid.

“Yeah, you know, the first two or three days were a bit of a blur, as much the first 24 hours more hangover than anything. The social media side of it I wasn’t ready for –  just getting messages from people allover the globe, from Australia, from here, from America, South America, China, just saying how inspired they were by it. That’s something I wasn’t expecting. I’m just a guy who’s won a golf tournament really, when you boil it down.”

Bland had a hot hand coming into Torrey Pines, and the South Course is not a difficult golf course if you lay out a solid game plan and execute. That’s exactly what Bland has done, and better than nearly everyone else for the first two rounds:  He’s hit 19 of 28 fairways, (69%), 24 of 36 greens, (67%) and he’s T-5 in putting for the tournament thus far.

“I was coming off a couple of good results, a win and a third in Europe. I was feeling pretty good about my game. I’ve been driving the ball well for five, six weeks now, which is the cornerstone if you’re going to put a fight up for a U.S.Open,” Bland explained, and he’s done exactly that here in La Jolla. “When I saw this place on Monday…it kind of set up to my eye. There’s not too many sort of doglegs. It’s all there just straight in front of me, and that’s the kind of golf course I like. There’s nothing kind of jumping out and grabbing you or anything like that. When I saw the course Monday, yeah, you know what, I thought, I can play around here,” he concluded earnestly.

Now the surprise co-leader, Bland is in unfamiliar territory. He actually held the co-lead at the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, but only for one hole. Other than that, he’s been a bit player or an extra for all his years and miles on the European Tour and elsewhere, as hasd co-leader Henley.

The number one player for the University of Georgia team that lost an NCAA final to Patrick Reed’s Augusta State team, Henley has only won three times in his PGA Tour career, but his stat line over the first two rounds of this 121st U.s., Open scream “champion:”  he ranks tied for first in the field in greens in regulation, (27 of 36 for a scintillating 75%), and he’s one putting one out of every three greens he plays, for a 1.67 average, T-19 in the field.

Greens in regulation and putting are the Rosetta Stone for solving a U.S. Open golf course. That’s how plodders, short-knockers, and journeymen often stumble into the U.S. Open lead, sometimes even winning.

Other unknowns have led U.S. Opens and much later than the halfway mark. If Johnny Miller would ever clam up about his remembrances of Oakmont in 1973, you might be able to recall the final group on championship Sunday was actually Jerry Heard and John Schlee, who even the Tour players might not have been able to pick out of line-up of Bowling for Soup. According to golf writer Marino Parascenzo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they looked at each other walking down the first fairway after their opening tee shots that day, Schlee turned to Heard and said, “What are we doing here?” and then they both fell off the leaderboard like their parachutes didn’t open, leaving the Open Trophy on the ground for an opportunistic Miller to snatch up.

THAT’S NOT MICKEY DOLENZ OF THE MONKEES, IT’S GOLFER FRANK BEARD, WHO LED THE 1975 “DRY CLEANER” U.S. OPEN AFTER 54 HOLES, BUT DID NOT WIN. ANOTHER JOURNEYMAN, LOU GRAHAM, TOOK HOME THE TITLE.

Then in 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah – the so-called  “Dry Cleaner Open” because Laundromat workers went on strike and picketed not far from the gates of the country club – the final pairing on championship Sunday was Frank Beard and Pat Fitzsimmons. Beard shot 78 and Fitzsimmons shot 77, handing the Open to another journeyman, Lou Graham, who defeated John Mahaffey in a Monday playoff.

And then in 1969 at Champions Club in Texas, the final pairing on Sunday was Miller Barber and Orville “Ol’ Sarge” Moody. And in the group just ahead of them was Deane Beman and Bunky Henry. (I did not make that name up.)

Henry, Moody, Beman, and Miller? I’d be more scared if I was trying to catch Homer Simpson, Principal Skinner, Apu, and Police Chief Wiggum.

Moody actually won that Open when Barber skyrocketed to a 78 in the sweltering Texas heat, and when Bob Rosberg and Beman started the day too far behind to catch up.

And then you get the total flukes like Michael Campbell, Lucas Glover, Ed Furgol, or Jack Fleck.

LAST YEAR’S RUNNER-UP MATTHEW WOLFF IS ONE SHOT BACK OF TH ELEADERS AFTER TWO ROUNDS OF THE U.S. OPEN GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP AT TORREY PINES.

So Richard Bland and Russell Henley lead the U.S. Open…for now. But the smart money right now is on the three most dangerous names on the leader board:  Louis Oosthuizen, Bryson DeChambeau, and Brooks Koepka, all past major champions.

The normally mercurial Oosthuizen had a relative quiet day on as his two birdies and two bogeys kept him at 4-under, along with Matthew Wolff, who is turning conventional U.S. Open wisdom on its head. On Friday Wolff hit only six fairways, but 14 greens, en route to a 3-under 68. That’s completely upside-down. He is tied for 8th in driving distance with a whopping 321 yards average, and is gaining a staggering two strokes gained off the tee. He even uncorked two drives that were 345 or longer.

DeChambeau, the defending champion, is also trying to bludgeon Torrey into submission, and rough, and green speeds be damned. His 69 vaulted him back into the mix. He’s hit 16 of 28 fairways hit (57%, tied for 22 in the field), yet he’s only hit 21 of 36 greens, for a paltry 58%. But his driving distance average of 335 has him second behind only South Africa’s Wilco Nienaber.

“I drove it pretty well for the most part, and I capitalized in certain areas. I made a great eagle on 18, a great shot on 16, and then when I missed it, I was able to get up-and-down a few more times than yesterday. That’s what it was. It wasn’t anything crazy,” DeChambeau stated matter-of-factly. “Still I feel like I got my C, C-plus game with my irons, and my driving is like B, putting is A. I’m putting really well. ButI feel like if I can clean up my iron play and get a little more comfortable with the irons and the drivers, I’ll have a good chance for this weekend.”

DeChambeau currently stands tied for 13th with two-time and back-to-back winner Brooks Koepka, both of whom are five shots behind at even-par 142. Other major champions who made the cut include Rory McIlroy (1-over), Dustin Johnson (2-over), Gary Woodland and Martin Kaymer (3-over), and Jordan Spieth (4-over) Two former champions missed the cut:  2013 winner at Merion Justin Rose and 2011 winner at Olympic Club Webb Simpson.