BROOKLINE, Mass. — In the midst of a tenuous time for golf, Brooks Koepka said earlier this week he wanted the focus to be on the U.S. Open. After two rounds, with Phil Mickelson now gone after having missed the cut, it’s safe to say that the focus has shifted back to golf thanks to some big names and unique stories.
So let’s oblige Koepka.
Here are five things to watch for heading into the weekend at The Country Club:
Loaded at the top
For a moment on Friday, the game’s top players were absent from the top of the leaderboard. But as the wind died down in the afternoon, four players ranked in the top 10 in the world made moves.
After salvaging a double bogey with a marvelous 25-foot putt on the third hole, Rory McIlroy heads into Saturday one shot off the lead. Between the frustration and passion he’s shown on a few holes this week, it’s evident McIlroy doesn’t just want to end his eight-year major drought, but believes he can do it. And after coming off a big win at the RBC Canadian Open last week, played opposite the LIV Golf London debut, McIlroy’s game seems primed at the perfect time for him and for the sport.
Meanwhile, Collin Morikawa is trying to win his third major and first U.S. Open after putting together a tournament-best 66 on Friday to vault himself to the top of the leaderboard. Earlier this week, Morikawa said his game wasn’t at his best because he couldn’t hit a fade. If that’s the case, it doesn’t look to be hurting him. Jon Rahm, the defending U.S. Open champion who played alongside Morikawa on Friday, nearly matched him. The Spaniard’s 67, helped by an eagle at the 14th, places him just one shot back.
“I think it’s a testament to the health and the state of this game,” Rahm said of the leaderboard after his round, which notably features players who stayed committed to the PGA Tour. “It’s pretty amazing to see Rory back-to-back — it’s not like he ever went anywhere. Obviously, Scottie doing what he’s been doing all year, Collin doing what he always does, myself doing what I always try to do, as well. It’s fun for all of us because we all want to compete against the best and beat the best.”
When asked about the loaded leaderboard, McIlroy put it simply: “It’s why we play.”
Scheffler in the shadows
Before anyone could fully realize it, the world No.1 was suddenly tied for the clubhouse lead Friday. Scottie Scheffler began the day at even par, dropped to 2-over early on, then turned it around in the blink of an eye and is now just 2 shots back. Two birdies and a hole-out eagle on the back nine put him in prime position heading into the weekend, even if most of the recent chatter around the sport recently hasn’t involved him.
As Scheffler himself will tell you, he likes the fact that even though he’s the top player in the world, he’s not the talk of the tour in the same way McIlroy and PGA champion Justin Thomas have been the past few weeks.
“I feel like I’m kind of an under-the-radar person,” said Scheffler, who won the Masters in April. “I’ve been No. 1 in the world for a while now, and it doesn’t really feel like it.”
“I can show up and do my thing and then go home and rest,” Scheffler said.
So far, that seems to be working. Through two days it feels like Scheffler has not shown his best stuff, and yet he’s in the thick of it heading to Saturday. But if Scheffler wins again and becomes the first player to win two majors in one year since Brooks Koepka won two in 2018, it’ll be hard for him to keep staying under the radar.
The other guys
While the leaderboard got filled with top players in the afternoon wave, there were still some relative unknowns lurking. Morikawa’s lead is shared with 34-year-old Joel Dahmen.
Dahmen is not quite the unknown — he has three PGA Tour wins — but his performance has been surprising since Friday marked the first time he’d made the cut at the U.S. Open. Last Monday, Dahmen tweeted out that he had just qualified for the U.S. Open and needed a place to stay. He’ll be staying through the weekend now and has a shot to end up with a whole lot of money — and maybe a trophy, too.
Hayden Buckley is making only his second major appearance after missing the cut at last year’s U.S. Open. Buckley is a Korn Ferry Tour alum who is ranked 259th in the world. He has three professional wins.
Nick Hardy, also by way of the Korn Ferry Tour, only has a bit more experience: He has played in just three majors in his career. He missed the cut at two of them and finished 52nd at the 2015 U.S. Open. He only found out last Friday he was in the field. Now, he’s 3 under and two off the lead.
Matthew NeSmith is the 168th-ranked player in the world. This is only his second major appearance (he missed the cut in 2015). Yet, he’s been fueled by his iron game and put together two sub-70 rounds and stands just 3 shots off the lead heading into the weekend.
“I didn’t know if I could compete with the big hitters in distance,” NeSmith said. “But it’s just if you put yourself in play, I can let my iron game shine. That’s kind of where I like to live and hit a bunch of greens and see what we can do on a weekend.”
You don’t want to be in seventh place
As stat guru Justin Ray pointed out on Twitter on Friday, 25 of the past 26 U.S. Open winners have been tied for sixth or better after two rounds. That’s enough of a trend to make seventh place — or worse — the spot you don’t want to be headed into the weekend. That’s not good for Scheffler (T-7), Matt Fitzpatrick, Sam Burns (T-13) and more. The weekend could bring another exception to the rule. Scheffler’s record speaks for itself. Sam Burns, who is in the same rental house as Scheffler this week, is also playing well as of late; he’s cracked the top-10 in the world for the first time in his career. Though he’s not playing alongside Scheffler, Burns said he’s definitely chasing him.
“I am a little upset he’s beat me by one,” Burns said with a smile Friday. “Obviously he’s had a fantastic year, and it’s kind of motivated me to try to play a little bit better and try to keep up with him
Fitzpatrick has an obvious familiarity with the venue after winning the 2013 U.S. Amateur at Brookline.
“I’ve tried to have no expectations coming into this week,” Fitzpatrick said after Thursday’s round. “I just want to enjoy the week, having obviously played so well here nine years ago. I’ve got great memories of the place, and the whole time I’ve been out, I see shots that I hit and I see the places I was. I think because of that I’m a bit more at ease. I’m just trying not to put any pressure on myself. It’s a golf course I know I can do well around, and I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
The LIV update
As much as Koepka would like the focus to be off LIV, it’s hard to do just that when it’s been the hottest topic at The Country Club this week. After two rounds, only four of the 15 LIV players (including Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, who committed to play in the next LIV event in Portland) made the cut. DeChambeau, Reed, Richard Bland and Dustin Johnson all are playing the weekend; none are under par.
Johnson, who is ranked 16th in the world, has been the best of the bunch. He’s 1 over and tied for 31st after following up an opening round 68 with a 73.
Johnson said he hasn’t noticed any difference regarding fan reaction this week after having left for LIV. And when asked how sharp he’d be able to keep his game playing only LIV events, Johnson was blunt: “Just as sharp as I would playing anywhere.”