First-timers in prime position for major glory


ERIN, Wis. – The mystery’s opening up to us.

With Erin Hills hosting a U.S. Open for the first time, we wondered what kind of player this newcomer to golf’s major championship stage would favor.

Going into the weekend, we know with certainty now.

Erin Hills favors a player who has never won a major championship.

That’s a wonderful thing for Paul Casey (71), Brian Harman (70), Brooks Koepka (70) and Tommy Fleetwood (70).

At 7-under overall, they shared the lead at Friday’s end.

None of them has won a major.

It’s also a wonderful thing for Rickie Fowler (73), J.B. Holmes (69) and Jamie Lovemark (69).

They’re each one shot back.

None of them has won a major, either.

It keeps going like this.

Nobody among the top 18 heading into the weekend has won a major.

Yes, it’s a bunched leaderboard, and anything still seems possible with 18 players within three shots of the lead and 23 within four shots, but that’s your storyline halfway through the 117th U.S. Open.

It’s head scratching how bereft this leaderboard is of players who have proven they know how to win a major.

Sergio Garcia (71) and Martin Kaymer (69) are the major championship winners highest on the leaderboard. They are tied for 19th.

While four shots back doesn’t seem like much, it’s more than you think in a U.S. Open, especially with so many players in front of Garcia and Kaymer. 

Nine of the last 10 U.S. Open winners were first, second or third through 36 holes.

Nineteen of the last 20 winners were within two shots of the lead through 36 holes.

It’s looking like Erin Hills wants to be the Robin Hood of major championship golf, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

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Apparently, this golf course doesn’t care much for those guys rich in majors and/or world ranking points. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Jason Day missed the cut. That’s the first time the top three players in the world have all missed the cut in a major since the world rankings were introduced in 1986.

Eight of the top 12 players in the world missed the cut.

McIlroy left shaking his head.

He loved Erin Hills, a long golf course with the widest fairways in U.S. Open memory, a setup that seemed perfect for one of the game’s best drivers.

“The golf course is great,” McIlroy said. “It lets you be aggressive. You can get on runs where you can make birdies. Not your typical U.S. Open setup. But I'm a big fan. I think it's going to produce a really good winner at the end of the week.”

It’s strange how this golf course closed its doors to so many of the best players in the world and opened its doors to so many unproven on stages this large.

Check out Cameron Champ.

The big-hitting 22-year-old amateur from Texas A&M shot 69 Friday to move into a tie for eighth, just two shots off the lead. This is the first U.S. Open he has ever played in, the first major, too.

“This is kind of the first time I’ve been in the spotlight,” Champ said.

Same with Xander Schauffele (73), who is playing in his first U.S. Open. The 23-year-old Tour player is also two shots off the lead.

“It's funny,” Schauffele said. “I'll sign some autographs and kids will be like, `Dad, who is that?’”

Harman, a two-time PGA Tour winner, is playing in just his third U.S. Open, but he is still an unlikely frontrunner. He missed the cut in his first two U.S. Opens. He’s a short hitter excelling on a course that measured 7,839 yards on Friday, the longest layout in U.S. Open history.

“If you hit good shots, you have a chance for birdies here,” Harman said.

With all the controversy that complicated the last two U.S. Opens, there’s a fairness to the setup at Erin Hills that’s impressing the field through 36 holes. The lack of wind they usually get here helped immensely with that on Friday.

“The big number is there on every hole, and that's what gets your attention,” said Wisconsin’s Steve Stricker (72), who’s tied for 55th. “But they do give you plenty of area to hit it off the tee. There is ample room to hit it, so it's really fair.”

When pros say that it’s “fair” at a major, it usually means it’s a little too easy, but the allure of Erin Hills is how it can look so easy and still be penal.

Yes, 42 players are cumulatively under par, the most through two rounds in U.S. Open history. But world No. 1 Johnson, No. 2 McIlroy and No. 3 Day all struggled unexpectedly. Johnson shot a 75, McIlroy a 78 and Day a 79 on the first day.

“I said yesterday, this has been my best preparation going into a major, I felt like, in my career,” Day said.

Fowler made it look easy Thursday, shooting 65 with his 7-under total equaling the lowest 18-hole score in relation to par in U.S. Open history.

We saw Hideki Matsuyama and Chez Reavie equal that with 65s on Friday. Matsuyama missed a 12-foot birdie at the last for a record-setting score.

We saw Adam Hadwin equal a U.S. Open record, making six birdies in a row on Thursday.

And we saw Casey play what may be the round of the tournament because of the way it ran the gamut. His play Friday captured how easy and how penal Erin Hills can be. Casey grabbed his share of the lead with a 71 that included a triple-bogey 8 at the 14th hole.

“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an 8 on the card, but I'm a pretty happy man,” Casey said.

There are a lot of players without majors happy the U.S. Open is being played at a first-time venue.