ERIN, Wis. — World Nos. 2 and 3 Rory McIlroy and Jason Day wore easy-going smiles as they finished their second round together Friday at the US Open. They sank their final shots, walked off together to the scorer’s shack, and hugged their loved ones before heading out for the day.
It was hard to tell that neither player made the cut at the US Open, McIlroy needing four birdies in the final six holes just to get to 5 over par, and Day finishing in a tie for 144th place at 10 over. But it became clear earlier during their final nine that they wouldn’t be playing this weekend at Erin Hills.
“I probably could have birdied all of the last six. It didn’t matter at that point because I was so far from the cut line,” McIlroy said. “But at least I know it’s in there. It’s just a matter of getting it out of me.”
Having a couple of star players fizzle out early is nothing new for a major, particularly the US Open, which bills itself as the toughest test in golf. But this year’s tournament has been a strange contradiction — an absolute torment for the world’s best golfers, but a wide-open birdiefest for everyone else.
In addition to McIlroy and Day, defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson also missed the cut. No. 10 Jon Rahm didn’t make the cut and spent much of the first two rounds slamming his clubs. Masters runner-up Justin Rose and former Masters champ Adam Scott also missed the cut.
In all, eight of the top 12 players in the world won’t be playing this weekend — on top of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who both missed this tournament. Only a handful of the brand-name players are still alive — First-round leader Rickie Fowler (6 under, tied for fifth), Masters champion Sergio Garcia (3 under, t-19) and Jordan Spieth (even, t-43).
But strangely, the US Open has otherwise been a birdie-hunter’s paradise, playing more like the Greater Milwaukee Open than a major. Four golfers enter Saturday’s third round tied for the lead at 7 under par (Paul Casey, Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks Koepka), and three golfers have turned in rounds of 7 under par — Fowler on Thursday, and Hideki Matsuyama and Chez Reavie on Friday. Before this year, only three players had shot a round of 7 under par in US Open history.
Erin Hills has been wide open, rain-softened and attackable, and an eye-popping 42 players enter the weekend under par after the course yielded 931 birdies in two days. Last year’s tournament at Oakmont saw 1,042 birdies for the four rounds and only three players finished under par, a far more typical result.
Additionally, an amateur is in the top 10 this year at 5 under (Cameron Champ, t-8), and the leaderboard is littered with players of various ages all gunning for their first major championship — such as Brandt Snedeker, J.B Holmes, and Jamie Lovemark.
Fox analyst Darren Clarke said Erin Hills is a different style of US Open course — treeless, with thick fescue and a links-like setup — that caters to accuracy off the tee, not world golf rankings.
“The golf course is proving a wonderful test — it’s not the bomber’s golf course that we all thought it was going to be,” Clarke said. “You’re seeing all sorts of different golfers up there, which is a huge compliment to the golf course.”
Johnson, McIlroy and Day each had their own reasons for struggling this weekend.
Johnson couldn’t putt, finishing 134th out of 156 with 65 putts. He also had a lot on his mind this week following the birth of his son on Monday and arriving to Erin Hills a day late on Tuesday.
“I didn’t feel like I was hitting bad putts, it just, I don’t know, misreading them, something,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what else it was.”
McIlroy, whose season has been slowed by a rib injury, couldn’t keep the ball in the fairway.
After rolling his eyes at course officials trimming for down the thick fescue on Tuesday, McIlroy couldn’t stay out of the fescue on Thursday, hitting just 5 of 14 fairways en route to a 6-over-par 78.
He was better on Friday, hitting 11 fairways, but he couldn’t get in a rhythm — he’d flush an easy approach shot, then miss a birdie putt. McIlroy finally caught fire on the back nine when it was too late — he came within 4 inches of a hole-in-one on the ninth hole, his final one of the day — and now he has extra time off before participating in the Travelers Championship next weekend in Hartford.
“Coming off an injury, I was a little anxious going out there,” McIlroy said. “I got off to a good start, but it sort of caught up with me as the round went on. I think the more rounds I can play, I’m hopefully going to get rid of all that stuff and hopefully strip it down to what you saw the last six holes.”
Day, his playing partner, was the tournament’s biggest disappointment. He couldn’t hit a fairway (17 of 28, tied 133rd), wasn’t particularly strong with the putter (59 putts, tied 47th) and couldn’t overcome a disastrous opening-round 79.
“Even though this is a links golf course, it’s more American links. I’ve typically struggled in the past with links golf courses,” said Day, a former world No. 1. “I usually love places like this. I enjoyed the walk. The golf course is actually really beautiful. And I just unfortunately just didn’t execute.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin