ARDMORE, Pa. — For one round at least, Billy Horschel convinced himself that it was just another day and he was playing in just another tournament.
Good luck doing that for two more days and two more rounds, Billy, because you’re tied for the lead at the 113th US Open.
Making just his second appearance in one of golf’s major championships, Horschel looked right at home on Friday at Merion Golf Club, doing something that had statniks searching the record books, without finding middle ground on a consensus. He hit all 18 greens in regulation, shooting a second-round 67 to complete 36 holes at 1-under 139.
Horschel was alone in the lead until one of the final strokes on a day that began at 7:13 a.m. First-round leader Phil Mickelson knocked in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at 8:30 p.m., seconds after the horn blew, suspending play. Mickelson’s only birdie of the round gave him a 72, and might put him in the final group with Horschel, depending on what happens with the 68 players that still have holes left to complete. Second-round play will resume on Saturday at 7:15 a.m., with the low 60 and ties making the cut after 36 holes. The 10-shot rule is no longer in effect at the US Open.
Five players were one shot behind Horschel and Mickelson, three of them having finished their second rounds: Luke Donald (72), Steve Stricker (69), and Justin Rose (69). Ian Poulter had four holes left to play, and 21-year-old amateur Cheng-Tsung Pan had nine holes remaining.
They’re chasing Mickelson, who isn’t a surprise. And Horschel, who probably is.
Majors, especially the US Open, are supposed to pile layer after layer of pressure on those inside the ropes, requiring a calmness and steadiness in order to succeed. Horschel is rarely calm, by his own admission. But man, was he steady.
“Patience is something that has always been a struggle for me,” said Horschel. “I’m doing a really good job of it this week, staying patient and just taking what’s in front of me. I’m trying to keep a smile on my face and be happy with anything I do. If I can execute every shot, that’s all I can try to do out there this week.”
He was able to execute on almost every shot Friday, starting with the 11 holes required to finish his first round following Thursday’s weather-plagued stop-and-start. He played those even par (making a bogey on his first hole, and a birdie on his last), and was happy that there was a quick turnaround before going back out for his second round.
What followed was one of the best ball-striking rounds in recent US Open memory. Horschel missed two fairways, but hit all 18 greens in regulation, becoming the first player in at least 21 years to be putting for birdie from the green on every hole, and maybe longer than that. Exactly who was the last player to hit all 18 greens in regulation at a US Open was unclear.
Horschel three-putted once, at No. 13, his only bogey. But he made birdies at Nos. 2, 10, 11, and 18, when he canned a 20-footer. It was only after making that final birdie did Horschel realize what he had done.
“I didn’t know I hit every green until I walked off 18. It’s a cool thing. But it’s not the first time I’ve hit all 18 greens. I’ve done it plenty of times in my career,” Horschel said, although it’s the first time in his PGA Tour career. “Obviously it’s at a US Open, but I think the softness of the greens helped that.”
Horschel is in his third year on the PGA Tour, and if you aren’t familiar with the 26-year-old Floridian, you haven’t been paying attention this season. He’s made 14 of 15 cuts, finished in the top 10 six times, and grabbed the first victory of his career in New Orleans, winning by one shot after holing a lengthy birdie putt on the final hole. He’s fourth on the points list, fifth on the money list.
No offense, but winning in New Orleans is much different than winning the US Open. Merion has proven, through the first two days, that it has plenty of bite, playing to a high stroke average (74.646) and showing that a short course isn’t an automatic pushover.
It was actually pushing Mickelson around until his 18th-hole birdie, matching Horschel’s on a hole that has given up just nine all week and has statistically played the hardest.
“It felt great. I wasn’t expecting birdie there, it’s a very difficult hole,” said Mickelson. “Even though I shot 2 over, it was the birdie opportunities that I didn’t capitalize on. Had I made [a few more birdies], I would have changed the momentum of the round. I played well today, even though I didn’t feel the score was what I thought it should be.”
There’s two more rounds to change that, but the course conditions figure to get more difficult as the course becomes drier. Merion won’t go down without a fight; in fact, after two days, it’s winning on every judges’ card.
“It feels good being in contention heading into the weekend. There are a lot of players right there, around par, a couple over. I don’t know how anyone is going to separate too far from the field,” Mickelson said. “I think this golf course provides a chance to shoot a low round, even though not many players have done it.”
Said Horschel: “I know it’s a big tournament. I know it’s a big event. I know it’s a historical event. I’m just going to think about trying to execute every golf shot from here on in for the next 36 holes. If I can do that, we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”