PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – With each birdie, Phil Mickelson put some life into an overcast day at Pebble Beach and gave himself another chance to finally take something more than silver home from a U.S. Open.
One day after he didn’t make a single birdie, Mickelson made six of them Friday. It wasn’t enough to catch Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who set the early pace with a 3-under 68 to take a two-shot lead into the weekend, but all that mattered to Mickelson was getting back to even par.
He did that one better.
With five birdies in a seven-hole stretch early in his round, Mickelson shot a tournament-best 66 and joined a shrinking group of five players who have beaten par over two days at Pebble Beach.
McDowell was at 3-under 139, and he made even more friends with a bogey on the final hole that assured 60-year-old Tom Watson of two more rounds in what likely will be his final U.S. Open.
Mickelson was joined at 1-under 141 by two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els (68), 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa (71) and Dustin Johnson (70), who has won the last two times in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and looks right at home in much firmer conditions.
The names weren’t important to Mickelson. Only the numbers.
“I’m in a good spot,” said Mickelson, whose five runner-up finishes is a U.S. Open record. “I don’t look at the leaderboard. I don’t look at other players. I look at par. If you can stay around par, you’re going to be in the tournament Sunday. That was kind of the goal.”
The Masters champion opened with a 75 Thursday, after missing a half-dozen birdie putts inside 12 feet. On Friday, he hardly missed anything.
It began with an approach into about 4 feet on the tough par-4 second hole, and Mickelson was relentless on the front nine until hitting into the cavernous bunker short of the ninth green and making his only bogey.
By then, he was back in the game.
Tiger Woods believes he’s still in the mix, too, although a pedestrian round of 1-over 72 left him seven shots behind. Woods has never won a major when trailing by more than six shots going into the weekend.
Asked if he liked his positions, Woods replied, “Absolutely.”
“I’m right there in the championship,” Woods said. “I just need to make a few more birdies, a few more putts on the weekend, and I’ll be right there.”
It starts with McDowell, a 30-year-old with five European Tour victories and a pair of 18-hole leads in the majors.
He was among the early starters, when the greens were in the best shape and the air was cool and calm. McDowell holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the 14th – the par 5 that chewed up so many other players throughout the day – and pulled ahead with smart shots into the fourth hole and the par-5 sixth to build his lead.
“I’m really trying to put no expectations on myself this weekend because I know there’s a lot of great players out here … and this golf course is extremely difficult,” McDowell said.
It just didn’t look that way Friday.
It was a gentle start to the second round, with the calm of Stillwater Cove broken only by a pair of dolphins searching for breakfast. Over the next 12 hours, conditions didn’t change much except for a freshening breeze late in the day.
McDowell’s round ended with a three-putt bogey on the ninth hole, but it was significant. By dropping to 3-under, he assured that everyone within 10 shots, 7-over or better, would make the cut to play on the weekend – Watson, Steve Stricker and Sergio Garcia included.
Watson, who won his only U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, made par on the last hole to follow his 78 with a 71. He was pleased with his 71, though not overly surprised given the conditions.
“When you have some wind, that’s when it’s hard to get on these greens, to get the right shot in there, to get the right distance,” Watson said “Today, the course is going to play as easy as it’s going to play for four rounds. I can guarantee you that.”
Mickelson made him look like a prophet.
Woods did not.
The world’s No. 1 player made his first birdie of the tournament by chipping in from about 20 yards short of the green on his second hole at No. 11. But he made only two more birdies, and they were not enough to offset the tee shot that caromed off a tree into grass so deep he took a penalty drop, or the plugged lie in the corner of the bunker on the 12th, or his failure to birdie the easiest par 5s.
Mickelson knew he would have to take advantage on the first seven holes, and he did just that.
“I thought something in the 60s was out there and would get me into contention,” Mickelson said. “I knew I needed to get off to a quick start because the birdie holes are the first seven.”
Make that eight.
Mickelson hit 5-iron off the tee on the dramatic eighth hole, with breeze and bounce taking it through the fairway and on the edge of a 60-foot cliff that drops into the ocean. It left him only a wedge that he hit into 15 feet for a birdie.
As he finished out the ocean holes, a small crowd walking the beach wrote in the sand, “GO PHIL.”
He made birdie on the 11th and finished with seven strong pars, giving himself four good looks at birdie but no complaints when they didn’t fall. Mickelson was nine shots better than his opening round.
“This is so much fun, and I don’t want the weekend to end,” Mickelson said.
It’s just beginning. His family was due in from San Diego on Friday night, stirring memories of his Masters victory in April. Once he took the lead, his wife, Amy, came out to the golf course for the first time since being diagnosed with breast cancer more than a year ago.
But this U.S. Open is only halfway over.
McDowell has not faced weekend pressure in a major, and he conceded that it was hard not to think about that shiny trophy.
Ishikawa, who has a chance to become the youngest U.S. Open champion, is used to the bright lights. Even though he only graduated high school in March, he is treated in Japan the way Woods is around the world. And it helped to play two rounds with Watson, who is revered in these parts.
Els, already a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, also knows how to win a U.S. Open, even though his last title came in 1997.
“I needed something in red figures to get me back in the tournament,” the Big Easy said.
Paul Casey took an 8 on the par-5 14th when a chip rolled back toward his feet – stopping near a divot he had smoothed over during the time it took the ball to roll up and down the slope. He was not penalized because it was deemed not his intention to improve his lie. Casey shot a 73 and was at even-par 142, along with Brendon De Jonge (73), Alex Cejka (72) and Jerry Kelly (70).
Two dozen players were separated by six shots, a group that included Lee Westwood, the No. 3 player in the world who played with Els and Woods and has done well to stay in the game.
Westwood scrambled for a 71 on a day he thought would be the easiest of the week.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to run away with this,” Westwood said.