OAKMONT, Pa. – Everybody knows that you do not shoot 76 in the first round and then win the U.S. Open. It just doesn’t happen.
The last person to do that – to shoot 76 and actually win – was an Iowa club pro named Jack Fleck more than 60 years ago. And, you probably know, that was nuts, a once-in-a-century kind of fluke. Fleck shot 7 over par at Olympic and somehow that was good enough to force a playoff with Ben Hogan. Fleck then won that playoff in one of the great upsets in golf – and sports – history.
All of which reiterates the point: You don’t shoot 76 in the opening round and then win the U.S. Open.
Still, when a player – especially an accomplished one – does shoot a 76 (or thereabouts) in the opening round, he will always talk about trying to get back into it. He will have a plan, and it’s always the same plan.
1. Shoot under par the next day (just to make the cut).
2. Go low on Saturday.
3. Count on the brutal U.S. Open conditions to wilt the leaders and bring you back into play.
4. Win on Sunday.
It’s actually a reasonable-sounding plan ... except nobody can do it. Rickie Fowler shot 76 in his opening round and followed with a 75. Rory McIlroy shot a 77 and, after briefly thrilling the gallery with a run of birdies, collapsed and missed the cut. This is how it usually goes. The comeback plan rarely even makes it past Step 1.
Only don’t look now – there’s world No. 1 Jason Day trying to scale the impossible wall. Day shot his disappointing 76, and it sure seemed like he was done.
Then, he shot a nice solid 69 in Round 2 and made the cut. That built his confidence. Then, he went out and absolutely blistered the front nine at Oakmont. He made four birdies in his first seven holes, eagled a hole and actually got all the way back to par. He did limp in, but he managed to shoot a dazzling 66 to pull into eighth place, six shots behind leader Shane Lowry.
Now, he needs Step 3 and Step 4 to pull off this crazy, impossible comeback.
“I just want it to play hard and fast for (Sunday),” he said. “And I think the harder the better like a normal U.S. Open Sunday should be. I think it would be fun for everyone.”
Well, actually, it wouldn’t be fun for everyone, which is exactly what Day is counting on. Yes, he’s still six back, and yes there are some terrific players in front of him. But he does have a couple of pretty sweet advantages going into Sunday.
One, he finished his round. Among the players in the top 10, only Day, Branden Grace and Bryson DeChambeau have finished their third rounds. That means the rest of the contenders have 5 a.m. wakeup calls and 7 a.m. tee times. Lowry probably has an hour or so of golf to play.
The second advantage – none of the seven players in front of Day have won major championships. Leader: Lowry has never been in full-blooded contention before.
Second place: Andrew Landry has never even played in a major championship before.
This is not to say they will all fold under the heat of a U.S. Open Sunday. But, let’s not kid anybody: Wouldn’t you rather be chasing players that have not yet endured the pressure and taken the trophy?
“It depends on how they look at it,” said Day, who ended his own sad major championship country song at the PGA Championship last year. “If they want to go out there and think they’re ready to win a major, then it’s obviously going to be tougher (for me) because they’re going to be focused and ready.”
Now, look, six shots is a lot to overcome, and Lowry has looked very solid all week. Landry has already quieted those who thought he would disappear from the leaderboard long ago. And the trio tied at 2 under are three of the most accomplished players of the last decade. So, the odds are still stacked heavily against Jason Day. But the best player in the world has put himself on the leaderboard where everyone can see him.