PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – On another frustrating day at Pebble Beach, Tiger Woods fought with his swing as much as the greens. Graeme McDowell, on the other hand, had that all figured out and gave Woods a distant target to shoot at for the weekend.
McDowell made six birdies on the way to a 3-under 68 on Friday and enters the weekend at 3 under. That was two shots ahead of Dustin Johnson, 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa and Ernie Els, who also shot 68 to position himself for a run at his third U.S. Open title.
“You’re always surprised to be under par at a U.S. Open golf course,” said McDowell, who has won five times on the European Tour, including a victory in Wales earlier this month.
Finishing the second round at even par was the quartet of Alex Cejka, who shot 72, Paul Casey (73), Brendon de Jonge (73) and Jerry Kelly (70).
Players returned to Pebble for a second round played under cloudy, cool and more benign conditions than on Thursday, when sunny skies and drying winds had Woods calling the greens “awful” after a birdie-less round of 74.
Opening on the back nine Friday, he chipped in on No. 11 for his first birdie of the tournament, but if things were looking up, it was only for a brief while. He bogeyed both the par-3s on the back, missed an 8-foot putt for birdie on No. 18, blocked a tee shot into a bunker on No. 2 and hooked one into the fescue on No. 3.
It added up to a 1-over 72 and a slide down the leaderboard – seven shots behind McDowell. Woods, of course, feels he’s still got a chance.
“I just need to keep progressing and keep moving my way up the board,” he said. “It’s a long haul. The U.S. Open is not going to get easier as the week goes on, especially on the weekend.”
Anything is possible with Woods, but clearly this is not the same player who won the last U.S. Open at Pebble, back in 2000, by a record 15 shots.
After opening the tournament by hitting 10 straight greens in regulation, Woods got wild. Since that start, he has gone 13 for 26, and though the greens were better during a morning round Friday than they were Thursday afternoon, he missed a series of makable putts, including the one on 18 and a 12-footer on 6 that slid by.
“I just need to make a few more birdies, a few more putts on the weekend, and I’ll be right there,” Woods said.
Els won the `B’ flight at the U.S. Open in 2000, tying for second, but didn’t finish any higher than fifth at the Open the rest of the decade. He’s playing some of his best golf in years in 2010, though, winning twice and now in serious contention at Pebble, which he said resembled “links golf on steroids.”
“It’s been such a long time since I won one of these, and we’ve got a long way to go,” Els said. “I needed a round like today to get back into the tournament, which is nice.”
Johnson is no stranger to hoisting trophies at Pebble Beach. The winner of the last two AT&T National Pro-Ams – the PGA Tour event played here every February – shot a 70 and was in contention despite a four-putt 7 on No. 14 in the opening round.
“Whenever you have success at a golf course you get a lot of confidence,” Johnson said. “So I’ve got a lot of confidence at this golf course, and it sets up very well for me.”
Same could be said for Tom Watson, the 1982 champion, who found himself waiting through the afternoon to see if he’s played what could possibly be his final U.S. Open round. The heartbreaking runner-up at last year’s British shot an even 71 to finish at 7-over 149. That’s within 10 shots of McDowell and would be good enough to make the cut if nobody in the afternoon goes lower.
But he knows Pebble as well as anyone, and he knows what he saw Friday.
“I suspect with the course playing the way it is today, it may be a little easy and some of the 1-under pars might surpass Graeme,” Watson said.
K.J. Choi, Mike Weir and Ian Poulter were among the “1 unders” playing in the afternoon, along with Phil Mickelson, who was trying to improve on a 75 in the first round.
Nobody has gone lower than Ishikawa, who shot a 58 two months ago in Japan – the lowest score ever on a major tour. While 99 percent of the U.S. Open players talk about patience, the 18-year-old who followed up his hot-pink wardrobe Thursday with a more muted red-and-white ensemble Friday, wasn’t taking that tact.
“I don’t know if it’s the right word, but my feeling is, go for it,” he said. “Challenging things means something to me, and especially in the outside-Japan tournaments, it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t challenge things.”
He’s got a ways to go, and Pebble Beach almost certainly won’t get any easier over the weekend. Still, better to be in his position, or McDowell’s, than playing from behind.
“You know, I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about picking up the trophy on Sunday afternoon. I think that’s only natural,” McDowell said. “But I’m trying to be very realistic about it, as well. I’m really trying to put no expectations on myself this weekend because, A, I know there’s a lot of great players out here, and B, this golf course is extremely difficult.”