PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The key position in the middle of a U.S. Open is not to be in front, as nice as that might be, but to be in the ballgame. There is something to be said about just hanging around, and many of the players said it after Round Two on Friday at Pebble Beach.
One who did not have to say it, or hear it, was Gary Woodland, the two-day leader at 9 under par. The player whose hot putter gave him a 6-under-par 65, including a long par save on No. 8 and a longer birdie putt on No. 9 (his 17th and 18th holes of the day), had been so good through two rounds at the PGA Championship last year that he set a tournament scoring record.
But Woodland finished tied for sixth back then, six shots behind Brooks Koepka, the champion. So, he knows that all manner of happenstance can roll during the weekend at a major.
Woodland had a bogey-free round at Pebble Beach Golf Links with four birdies on his second nine. The 35-year-old from Topeka who began with a basketball scholarship to Washburn University and switched to a golf ride to the University of Kansas has won three times on the PGA Tour. He showed his capacity for low scoring in the PGA at Bellerive, when he shot 130 for 36 holes.
He did it again here with 133 at the U.S. Open, which rarely yields such low scores. He is two strokes ahead of Justin Rose, the first-round leader.
"Nothing shifts. I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing," Woodland said.
He credited his improvement to hard work on his putting, which has complemented his raw power (he leads the PGA Tour in reaching par-5 greens in two).
Rose said, after having shot 1-under-par 70, "Sometimes it’s nice to be in contention with things to work on, going into the weekend. Sometimes, if you feel perfect after two days, it’s hard to keep that level every single day.”
He called on his own experience in winning the U.S. Open at Merion in 2013, when he was third after two days and fifth after three. “I still remember working through the week with Sean [Foley, the swing instructor]. I wasn’t a hundred percent dialed into my long game,” he said.
Open history and Rose’s own logic indicated that many players remain within reach.
Aaron Wise, who shot par 71 to remain at 5 under (tied with Rory McIlroy), told of what he has learned in hanging around practice-round partner Brooks Koepka, the reigning two-time U.S. Open champion: “You don’t have to try to win these events, just try to stick around.”
Koepka, who overcame a 36-hole five-shot deficit to win the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, is five strokes behind again. He shot a second consecutive 69, to finish 4 under. When asked Friday if he was frustrated on a day when Pebble Beach played slightly tougher than it had in Round One, Koepka said, “No, I’m good at this 'patient game.’ I know you’ve just got to be hanging around on the weekend.”
One clearly frustrated player was Tiger Woods, who bogeyed his final two holes and ended up at par (one shot behind Phil Mickelson). “I’m a little hot right now,” Woods said, noting that he was not sharp with his approach shots. “It’s just a matter of leaving the ball in the right spots.”
In other words, he was the opposite of his playing companion Rose, who said, “I’d say my short game has been really, really strong this week. I’ve made a lot of putts inside 10 feet. I’ve managed my game really well. I’ve missed it in the wrong spots. I’ve always given myself an opportunity to salvage something out of every hole I’ve played.”
Many golfers believe they can salvage something out of the week. “There's so many guys with a chance to win. We've got a long way to go, and, you know, we'll see how it shapes up for tomorrow,” Woods said. “Right now, I’m still in the ballgame.”
By the time the day was done, though, the 15-time major champion trailed by nine. For those that far behind, Woodland had made it a whole new ballgame.