By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press
BROOKLINE, Mass. — For every Collin Morikawa and his back-to-back years winning a major is a Joel Dahmen, who only four years ago would have thrilled to even play in one.
Jon Rahm is the defending U.S. Open champion, one shot out of the lead. He will be playing on the weekend at The Country Club with Hayden Buckley, who studied while playing at Missouri because he figured he’d need to find a job after college.
The dozen players separated by two shots going into the weekend include the top three players in the world ranking and four of the top seven — Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Morikawa.
“I think it’s great for the game of golf that the highest-ranked players and the best players are up there, especially in the tournament where truly the best player ends up winning,” Rahm said.
It also includes two PGA Tour rookies and two players who have never won on tour.
Indeed, this U.S. Open has something for everyone. It just doesn’t have Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut by eight shots.
Morikawa was searching for something in his game and found a “baby draw” instead of his traditional fade, and it’s been working beautifully at Brookline. He matched the low score of the championship Friday with a 4-under 66 for a share of the lead with Dahmen, the cancer survivor and popular everyman in golf.
Rahm did his best keep pace with an eagle and a series of big par putts that felt just as valuable. Rahm had a 67 and was in the group of five players one shot behind. That included McIlroy, coming of a win at the Canadian Open, who was never more entertaining.
McIlroy was two holes into his round when an errant approach landed in waist-high fescue. He took a hack. And then another. The third try finally found the green, and he holed a 25-foot putt to salvage a double bogey.
McIlroy hit his stride on the back nine with three birdies over his last four holes for a 69.
“After 36 holes in a major championship, that’s all you want to do is put yourself right in the mix going into the weekend,” McIlroy said. “For a little part of the day there, it seemed like I was going to be a few more behind. But I dug deep and played the last eight holes really, really well.”
Not to be overlooked was Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, who chipped in from thick rough short of the par-5 14th green for an eagle that brought the Texan back into the mix with a 67. He was two shots behind.
Morikawa, Rahm and Scheffler have combined to win four of the last nine majors. And then there’s McIlroy, who has four majors by himself, but none since 2014.
“It’s the U.S. Open. No one has taken it deep so far and kind of run away,” Morikawa said. “The last few days is a huge confidence booster for me heading into this weekend, and hopefully we can kind of make some separation somehow.”
The idea of the U.S. Open is to identify the best players. Some of them require some introductions to major championship contention on the weekend.
Start with Dahmen, who will never be accused of taking himself too seriously, even if he takes his game seriously. He thought about withdrawing from the 36-hole qualifier twice last week, before it started and after the first round.
But he stuck it out, and with a 68 on Friday, plays in the final group of a major for the first time. He joined Morikawa at 5-under 135.
“We don’t tee off until 3:45 tomorrow. I typically have to be home at 5 for dinner,” Dahmen said. “So this will be different, for sure.”
The group one shot behind includes Buckley, who wasn’t in the U.S. Open until making a 20-foot birdie putt in a playoff for the last spot in his qualifier 11 days ago.
He was fading, like so many others, with three bogeys during a five-hole stretch around the turn when he got back on track. Birdies on the last two holes gave him another 68.
Also at 136 were Aaron Wise, with one PGA Tour victory and nothing better than a tie for 17th in his nine previous majors; and Beau Hossler, who featured on the weekend at Olympic Club as a teenage amateur in 2012 but hasn’t been heard of since then in the majors.
They were examples that the U.S. Open being open to all doesn’t just stop with qualifying for the right to play the toughest test in golf.
The weekend won’t have Mickelson, hardly a surprise. He took a four-month hiatus over his inflammatory remarks about the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed league he was promoting, wound up joining LIV Golf and returned to competition last week with poor results.
The U.S. Open was a slightly stronger test and Mickelson was exposed, particularly on the greens, with rounds of 78-73 to miss the cut. His next stop is Oregon in two weeks for another LIV Golf event, 54 holes and no cut.
McIlroy never panicked after his double bogey. He took advantage of the birdie chances on the drivable par-4 fifth and the short par-5 eighth. And he finished strong to get right in the mix, his main goal going into the weekend.
Adding to the anticipation for McIlroy was seeing so many familiar names at the top.
“You want to go up against the best to try to bring the best out of yourself,” McIlroy said. “And to see Collin and Jon and Scottie and Sam (Burns) up there and whoever else, that’s what major championship golf is all about. That’s what competition is all about.
“And that’s at the heart of this game. I’m excited to be in that mix going into the weekend.”