Reporting from Pebble Beach
Phil Mickelson started a cold, dank overcast day tied for 66th yet somehow ended up two night's sleep from his first U.S. Open championship, coaxing birdies out of beach-front property that was playing way over par for the course.
Mickelson followed his opening day 75 at Pebble Beach with a major second-day announcement, shooting four-under 31 on the front nine on his runaway way to five-under 66—only two shots back of 36-hole leader Graeme McDowell.
A 66 was really something on a course playing five-over 75 to the field.
"I felt like I wasn't overly stressed the entire round," Mickelson said.
At one-under 141 overall, Mickelson picked himself up by his bag straps after Thursday's thud and positioned himself for a comeback befitting Ben Hogan, who won the 1951 U.S. Open at Oakmont after shooting and opening-day 76.
The 66 matched Mickelson's lowest round at a U.S. Open—he also posted that number in 2004 during the second round at Shinnecock,
Others will have something to say about what happens over the weekend.
Northern Ireland's McDowell shot three-under 68 in his Friday morning round and took three-under 139 overall to the clubhouse.
McDowell is trying to become the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the U.S. Open, but you could lose your house betting on Europeans beyond sunset on Friday.
Ernie Els, the South African with two U.S. Open trophies on his shelf, out-played the main attraction in his group, Tiger Woods, to shoot three-under 68 to stand one-under 141 and two shots behind McDowell.
Dustin Johnson, the young American who has won the last two PGA tour events at Pebble Beach and Ryo Ishikawa, the really young (18) Japanese sensation, are also two shots back at one-under 141.
Woods began Friday looking for some upward leader board movement but actually moved back with his one-over 72.
He was only five shots behind the co-leaders when he teed off Friday but went home seven strokes back.
Woods stands four-over 146 and maintains he's in prime striking position, perhaps forgetting he hasn't won a golf tournament after Thanksgiving.
"I feel good," Woods said. "I'm right there…I'm right there in the championship."
Not nearly as "there" as rival Mickelson, who birdied five of his first eight holes before ruining a perfectly incredible front-nine 30 with his bogey at nine.
A day after posting no birdies, Mickelson reeled off six, off-set by only the one bogey.
What happened between Thursday and Friday?
Mickelson said he made a slight adjustment in his putting.
"It was just a minor tweak here and there," he said.
You knew the day could be special day when Mickelson birdied the notoriously-difficult par-four second, a 502-yard day trip that normally plays as a par 5. The second hole played to a most-difficult 4.5 average Friday.
It was the first of three straight birdies for Mickelson, seeking his first U.S. Open victory to go with five second-place finishes.
Mickelson could end up in a Sunday fight with Els--another 40 year-old multi-major winner--who played like Big Easy just up the coast from Big Sur.
Els won his first U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994 and his second three years later at Congressional, not understanding at the time the enormity of his accomplishments.
"It's amazing to think I was 24 when I won this event at Oakmont," Els reflected. "I must have been out of my head to think I could have won at 24."
He was so much older then, he's younger than that now.
McDowell, 30, was not the player from Northern Ireland everyone thought could be the 36-hole leader.
The buzz coming into the week was all about 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, fresh off his impressive win at Quail Hollow.
Despite recognizing McIlroy as a close friend, McDowell said his country mate may not have the temperament yet to put together this Pebble puzzle.
"Rory plays gung-ho golf," McDowell said. "He's a kid. He grips it and rips it…it's not U.S. Open golf.
McIlroy gripped and ripped a 75-77 over two days here and will enjoy the weekend as a spectator.
McDowell is the studious type, calculating winds speeds and angles. He spoke of the "heavy breeze' at Pebble Beach while admitting you probably could not, technically, weigh the wind.
McDowell is no interloper, though, coming off a win at the Celtic Manor Wales Open. He also finished 10th at the 2009 British Open, his best result in a major--until now?
"I'm not seeing the battle with the rest of the field," he said. "I'm seeing the battle with myself and the golf course."
It would be interesting, too, if McDowell could replace Tiger Woods as U.S. Open champion.
Last December, McDowell was connecting to Orlando through Los Angeles, on his way back from China, when he was summoned to replace the host at Woods' annual tournament in Sherwood. Woods at the time was embroiled in an unfolding scandal. McDowell ended up finishing second behind Jim Furyk.
Mickelson and McDowell were the important "M&Ms" on Friday --with two important days left.
"This is the greatest place," Mickelson said of Pebble Beach. "I don't want the tournament to end. I want to keep playing."