Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlory and Jon Rahm in mix at U.S. Open


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BROOKLINE, Mass. — For a weird while it looked like this U.S. Open might turn out to be some sort of funky qualifiers’ paradise. Up to the rafters of the leader board went five unknowns who qualified in Ohio, two who qualified in Texas, one who qualified in Canada, this guy, that guy, that other guy. It felt like if you hadn’t played one of the 36-hole qualifiers you must have been some sort of hopeless slacker.

Then came the midday and afternoon of Friday at such a geezer of a country club they call it the Country Club, and up the boards around the course crashed the surnames of the stars: SCHEFFLER, then MORIKAWA and RAHM, then, wait, MCILROY. Now they’ve got themselves a whopper of a leader board approaching the weekend, with Collin Morikawa up top with Joel Dahmen at 5 under par, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm among five players at 4 under par, and No. 1 Scottie Scheffler among five at 3 under par.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s why we play,” McIlroy said, soon adding, “You want to go up against the best to try to bring the best out of yourself.”

As the shadows lengthened Friday afternoon, the best did seem to be Morikawa, not that it came as a jolt. The reigning British Open champion and 2020 PGA titlist might not be hitting like he’s accustomed to hitting, but he’s missing in the right spots, in the eccentric parlance one often hears around this batty sport. He started on the back nine, rang up a sublime 32, stammered a lone bogey on No. 4, then treated the bleachers at the par-5 eighth hole to one of the great mis-hits they’ll ever see, an approach that went up the scary hill and bounded onto the front left part of the green and came to sit six feet from eagle.

He nudged that putt left and looked sad, but the birdie pushed him ahead, and the round (66) bested all the others. It all looked so promising that somebody brought up the fact he has opened with two rounds in the 60s in only two previous majors, and he has won both those majors.

“That’s such a terrible stat,” the business major said and grinned. “I mean, I’ve played 11 majors. It’s not a big enough stat to really make anything out of it, but hopefully.”

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Ah well, at least he’s got his topic of the week on which to elaborate: the flummoxing fact he’s hitting a little draw rather than a little cut these days. “No, I think what it proves is you can play this game with many shots,” the 25-year-old said. “I remember the first time I played with Tiger [Woods] and he hit every shot that called for it. Pin is on the right, you hit a little cut. Pin is on the left, you hit a little draw. This is just going to hopefully make my iron play and make my game a little bit more well-rounded than just hitting a cut. But this week we’re going to work with what we have, and right now it’s a little baby draw.”

He and Rahm finished together, Rahm with his 67 saying they could “feed off each other,” and as Rahm spoke and praised the leader board as “a testament to the health and the state of this game” — an issue in question lately — McIlroy was wrapping up outside.

The Northern Irishman had taken his fans on another of his thrill rides, their chants of “Ror-eee” echoing as he finished. When he ended with a 69 to add to his opening 67, the 69 became “a really good example of just having a good attitude.”

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That’s true especially because his double-bogey at the par-4 No. 3 might have made many quit the game, in many cases a wise decision. His approach from smack amid the fairway landed in some tall and scruffy vegetation behind the green, so he walked back there and began whacking at the half-hidden ball.

On the first whack it croaked into the air and quit barely ahead of where it started.

On the second whack it croaked even worse, such that one might say it budged.

As this all looked sort of familiar if also brand-new, he finally plucked it onto the green 22 feet away, then made one of the better putts for a 6 you will see. Yet he refrained from crawling into the weeds and sleeping or weeping, and he birdied three of his final seven holes in this, his 28th major since his last major win, which came in August 2014 and marked his fourth in the previous 15 majors.

“Yeah,” he said, “I have to go out with the mind-set this week and I’m going to try to win my first again. I think that’s sort of the — I’m playing as good a golf as I’ve played in a long time.”

Before all the noise of all of that, Scheffler had sneaked in with a midday 67, a reminder he has spent the past four months as the best of the best, with his four PGA Tour wins and his Masters triumph and his ensuing runner-up finish in Fort Worth even if he did miss the cut at the PGA Championship.

He, too, overcame wretchedness: a chunk on No. 5. He, too, produced something gorgeous, a 55-yard knock from under a tree in the grass on No. 14, one which bounded its way up the green and into the right side of the cup so gently that it didn’t even need the help of the flagstick to stop. He just did all of that as he does things: quietly.

“Yeah, I feel like I’m kind of an under-the-radar person,” he said. “I don’t really feel like there’s much chatter going around with me. Rory won last week; Tiger was at the PGA. I’ve been No. 1 in the world for a while now, and it doesn’t really feel like it, so I kind of like just under the radar. I can show up and do my thing and then go home and rest.”

There’s under the radar and then there’s well under the radar, from which so many players have come to shine here: Dahmen (5 under), who qualified in Columbus; Hayden Buckley and Beau Hossler (4 under), who qualified in Columbus and Springfield, Ohio; Nick Hardy (3 under), who qualified as an alternate in Springfield; Michael NeSmith (3 under), who qualified in Dallas; Patrick Rodgers (3 under) who qualified in Columbus; first-round leader Adam Hadwin (2 under), who qualified as an alternate in Dallas; and MJ Daffue (1 under), who led for a while Friday and qualified as an alternate in Springfield.

They’ve all had some heady days here, but now they’re alongside those who have had many more heady days.


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