Brooklyn, Massachusetts. Amidst a meager time to practice golf, Brooks Koepka said earlier this week that he wants to focus on the US Open. Two rounds later, with Phil Mickelson gone now that he’s missed the cut, it’s safe to say that the focus has shifted back to golf thanks to some of the big names and unique stories.
So let’s commit Koepka.
Here are five things to watch for heading to the weekend at The Country Club:
Loaded on top
For a moment on Friday, the game’s top players were absent from the leaderboard. But as the wind calmed in the afternoon, four players ranked in the world’s top ten made moves.
After saving a double bogey with a superb 25-footer shot on the third hole, Rory McIlroy heads into Saturday with one shot off the lead. Between the frustration and passion he has shown in a few holes this week, it’s clear that McIlroy not only wants to end the major eight-year drought, but believes he can do it. And, having claimed a big win at the RBC Canadian Open last week, playing against LIV Golf London for the first time, McIlroy looks set in time for him and the sport.
Meanwhile, Colin Morikawa is trying to win his third major and his first US Open after amassing a Top 66 on Friday to jump himself to the top of the leaderboard. Earlier this week, Morikawa said his game wasn’t at its best because he couldn’t fade away. If so, it doesn’t seem to hurt him. US Open champion John Ram, who played alongside Morikawa on Friday, almost matched him. The 67-year-old Spaniard, assisted by an eagle on his 14th, puts him back in just one shot.
“I think it’s a testament to the health and condition of this game,” Ram said of the leaderboard after his tour, which features players who have remained committed to the PGA Tour. “It’s really amazing to see Rory back in action—it’s not like he’s ever gone anywhere. Scotty obviously does what he’s been doing all year, Colin does what he always does, and I do what I always try to do, like okay.” 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: “That’s why we play.”
Scheffler in the shade
Before anyone fully realized it, World No. 1 was suddenly handcuffed to lead the club on Friday. Scotty Scheffler started the day on equal footing, dropped to 2 more early on, then flipped it over in the blink of an eye and is now just 2 shots. Two birders and a pierced eagle on his nine back have put him in prime position heading into the weekend, even if he hasn’t had the most recent chatter about the sport lately.
As Schaeffler himself will tell you, he loves the fact that even though he’s the best player in the world, he doesn’t talk about the Tour in the same way McIlroy and PGA champion Justin Thomas have been for the past few weeks.
“I feel like a kind of invisible person,” said Scheffler, who won the Masters in April. “I’ve been #1 in the world for a while now, and I don’t really feel like it.”
“I can come in and do my things and then go home and rest,” Scheffler said.
So far, this appears to be working. In a couple of days it looks like Schaeffler hasn’t shown his best, yet he’s in the midst of that heading into Saturday. But if Schaeffler wins again and becomes the first player to win two majors in one year since Brooks Koepka won two titles in 2018, it will be tough for him to stay under the radar.
While the leaderboard was filled with top players in the afternoon wave, there were still some relative unknowns lurking. Morikawa’s progress is shared with 34-year-old Joel Dahmin.
Dahmen isn’t quite the unknown – he’s won three rounds on the PGA Tour – but his performance has been a surprise since Friday marked the first time he made the chop at the US Open. Last Monday, Dahmen wrote on Twitter that he had just qualified for the US Open and needed a place to stay. He’s staying all weekend now and has a chance of getting a 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 US Open. Buckley is a graduate of the Korn Ferry Tour and is ranked 259th in the world. He has three career victories.
Nick Hardy, also by Korn Ferry Tour, has a bit more experience: he’s played in only three majors in his career. He missed the cut in two of them and finished 52nd at the 2015 US Open. It was only last Friday that he found out he was on the field. Now, 3 is less than fore two.
Matthew Nesmith is the 168th player in the world. This is only his second major appearance (he missed the cut in 2015). However, he was backed by his iron game and collected 2 sub-70 rounds and stopped 3 shots on the lead before the weekend.
“I didn’t know if I could compete with the big hitters from a distance,” NeSmith said. “But only if you play yourself, I can let my iron game shine. This is the kind of place I like to live in and hit a bunch of greens and see what we can do on the weekend.”
You don’t want to be in seventh place
as such Justin Ray noted the statistic guru on Twitter On Friday, 25 of the past 26 US Open winners were tied for sixth or better after two rounds. That’s enough of a trend to make seventh – or worse – the place you don’t want to be heading for the weekend. That’s not good for Schaeffler (T-7), Matt Fitzpatrick, Sam Burns (T-13) and more. Weekends may bring another exception to the rule. Schaeffler’s record speaks for itself. Sam Burns, who is in the same rental home as Schaeffler this week, is also playing well lately; He broke into the world’s top ten for the first time in his career. Although he doesn’t play alongside Schaeffler, Burns said he’s definitely chasing after him.
“I’m a little upset because he beat me with one,” Burns said with a smile on Friday. “He’s obviously had a great year, and it kind of motivated me to try and play a little bit better and try to keep up with that.
Fitzpatrick has a clear knowledge of the place after winning the 2013 US Amateur Championships in Brooklyn.
“I tried not to have any expectations ahead this week,” Fitzpatrick said after Thursday’s tour. “I just want to enjoy the week, having played so well here nine years ago. I have great memories of the place, and all the time I was out, I see the shots I hit and I see the places I was. I think because of that I feel more comfortable. I just try not to Putting no pressure on myself. It’s a golf course I know I can do well, and I’m just trying to enjoy he-she.”
As much as Koepka would like the focus to be away from LIV, it’s hard to do when it was 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 have committed to play at the next LIV event in Portland) have made it. DeChambeau, Reed, Richard Bland and Dustin Johnson play this weekend. Nothing below par.
Johnson, who was ranked 16th in the world, was the best of the group. He passed 1 and tied for 31st after following the opening round 68 with a score of 73.
Johnson said he didn’t notice any difference in terms of fan reaction this week after leaving for LIV. And when asked how strong he is at keeping his game at LIV-only events, Johnson was blunt: “Just like I’d play anywhere.”