ARDMORE, Pa. -- They made Merion’s East Course even more challenging for the second round of the 113th U.S. Open on Friday. And at the end of another day of dusk to dawn golf in the Philadelphia suburbs, a 26-year-old Florida native once known for throwing clubs and pitching fits when swings and other things went badly nevertheless stayed in a calm, collected state of mind, with spectacular results.
Billy Horschel, a former University of Florida standout who played high school golf in Palm Bay, posted the lowest 18-hole score of the week, a sublime 3-under 67 finished off with a tricky 22-foot birdie putt at the brutally difficult 503-yard par-4 No. 18 on an increasingly diabolical venue. That rousing round played in the morning session pushed him to the top of the leader board after 36 holes at 1-under 139, good for a tie at the top with first-round leader Phil Mickelson (72).
Minutes after the horn sounded at 8:27 p.m. to halt play because of darkness, Mickelson dropped a 20-foot putt at the 18th for his only birdie of the afternoon session. Because they already had teed off on 18, Mickelson’s group was allowed to finish the hole. The two leaders had a one-shot edge over Englishmen Justin Rose (69) and Luke Donald (72) and American Steve Stricker (69), all at even-par 140.
“It was a nice way to finish,” Mickelson said. “I fought hard all day, and I had a lot of birdies slip through there. ... I struggled with a lot of short putts [he missed a two-footer at the 12th for a bogey], but I’ve been playing well. Today should not have been an over-par round as well as I played. ... I just like being in the mix.”
The top two players in the world, No. 1 Tiger Woods and No. 2 Rory McIlroy, played together for a second straight day and each posted 70 to remain in contention at 3-over 143, only four shots off the lead.
Woods has never won any of his 14 major championship titles with an above-par score after 36 holes as he attempts to win his first major since the 2008 Open in San Diego. Though he has been grimacing in pain on shots out of deep rough because of a sore left elbow in the first two days that first cropped up when he won The Players last month, Woods declined to use that as any sort of excuse, saying only “it is what is.”
He also knows it is only going to get more difficult on the weekend, even if the greens are still somewhat soft and vulnerable.
“These conditions are not going to get any easier,” he said. “As the fairways start drying out, the ball is going to pick up mud and you’re going to get bad breaks. ... Unless you played this course in the practice rounds, you don’t realize how difficult it is. The short holes are short, but if you miss the fairway, you can’t get the ball on the green. The longer holes are brutal. And this is probably the stiffest set of par 3s we’ve faced.”
Said McIlroy, “There were people saying 63 or 64, but that was never going to happen. ... I didn’t hear any of the golfers saying that. ... It’s that sort of course where it’s so many wedges, but you still can’t get much under par. It’s just one of those places where par is a great score.”
And Horschel’s 67 was far better than that. Playing in only his second major championship, Horschel already has had a breakthrough season on the PGA Tour, with six top-10 finishes and a victory at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans. He’s clearly come a long way from that 2011 tour event on Sea Island, Ga., when he blew up in the final round of the McGladrey Classic. He threw clubs several times and cursed loudly enough that Sunday for the PGA Tour to fine him. His swing instructor, Todd Anderson, told him afterward that his behavior was totally unacceptable and had to change.
Last year, Horschel started working with a sports psychologist, Fran Pirozzollo, and their sessions have helped.
“I’ve acquired some patience, not as much as I wish I had,” he said. “But the older I get, the more mature I get on the golf course, the more understanding that if I do have a bad stretch of holes, I don’t hit the panic button. I just don’t press right away. ... Patience is something that has always been a struggle for me. I’m doing a good job of it this week. I’m trying to keep a smile on my face and be happy with anything I do.”
Horschel was 2-over par after seven holes on Thursday in his storm-delayed first round and “after I finished and walked off the golf course, I wasn’t upset at all. I played well, executed a lot of golf shots. Just nothing went in the hole.”
That changed Friday, when Horschel completed his opening-round 72 in the morning and then began a second round in which he made four birdies and hit all 18 greens in regulation, the most in the last 15 Opens. He leads the field in that critical category at Merion, where precision and patience are always rewarded. Overall he has reached 31 of 36 greens in regulation, but said he had no idea he’d been perfect in that key statistic Friday until he walked off the course.
“No, I was not in the zone, trust me,” he said. “I know what in the zone is for me. I don’t get nervous, I just see the shot and go. And I saw the shot and I went with it today, but I was still nervous with a lot of them.”
He was not alone. With a freshening breeze, still soggy sticky high grass in the rough and pin positions tucked in extremely impenetrable places on many holes all around, nerves were being frazzled all over this pernicious property, with more to come on the weekend, no doubt.
“It’s tough,” said Masters champion Adam Scott, at 7-over 147 after a 75 Friday. “There is just no let up.”