Phil Mickelson, Billy Horschel lead U.S. Open entering third round at tricky Merion

In fading light Friday evening, Phil Mickelson hustled to get off the 18th tee before night fell, and made his lone birdie of the day. Justin Rose was in the group behind Mickelson, and his scrambling par save completed a fine second round of the U.S. Open in 1-under 69 to get him to even par for the tournament, a shot behind Mickelson.

Saturday morning, Mickelson, Rose and others who finished the second round reaped the benefits of that good play and good fortune. The 68 players who had to return to the course just to get to the midway point of the Open found the day to be glorious but Merion still gruesome, reinforcing the theme of the first two days of the tournament – and portending more difficulty to come.

Ian Poulter, the Englishman who went to bed at even par, returned to make two bogeys in his final three holes, falling three shots back of leaders Mickelson and Billy Horschel, who are at 1-under 139. Cheng-Tsung Pan, who like Poulter left Merion Friday at even par -- but with nine holes to play -- bogeyed 14 and 15, made double bogey at 17. The 21-year-old amateur who plays at the University of Washington now sits at 4 over, tied for 20th.

But with a third round that promises movement – because Merion offers opportunities for both birdies and double bogeys – so many players remain in the tournament.

“I’m three off the lead in the U.S. Open,” said Poulter, whose bogey at 16 came after he drew a poor lie in a bunker. “And that’s the difference of one hole. You can make birdie and someone can make double. I’m right in position and right there where I want to be. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”

With the second round finally finished, there is some clarity about the logistics for the rest of the weekend. Because of the weather delays that disrupted play Thursday and pushed the second round into Saturday – and the fact that a high number of players, 73, made the cut -- the third round will go off in threesomes from both the first and 11th tees. (Normal plans would call for twosomes only from the first tee). Play will begin at 12:28 p.m. Saturday, with the final group – Mickelson, Horschel and former world No. 1 Luke Donald – at 2:40 p.m. from the first tee.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, the two top-ranked players in the world, are at 3 over, but have only a dozen players ahead of them – and will play together again, joining Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano from the first tee at 1:56 p.m. The top 19 players on the board include 10 players who fall in the top 22 in the world rankings – Mickelson; Donald, Steve Stricker and Rose at even par; Charl Schwartzel and Hunter Mahan at 1 over; Poulter at 2 over; Woods, McIlroy and Ernie Els at 3 over.

On Friday, with soft conditions, USGA officials put several pins in very difficult places, causing some consternation among players.

“We knew they were going to be in the areas,” Woods said, “but we didn’t think they were going to be as severe as they were.”

With the sun out for two straight days, and a breezy Friday helping to dry the course out, it’s likely Saturday’s pin placements will be more accessible. What Merion has shown, 36 holes into its first Open in 32 years, is that officials can make it as hard or as easy as they like.

“It’s very unique, no doubt about it,” said three-time major champ Padraig Harrington, who’s 4 over. “At the end of the day, what they’ve proved is they can put the pins tougher if they need to put it tougher if the scoring was better. Obviously it hasn’t been.”

The cut – which is now the top 60 players and ties, with no 10-shot rule — fell at 8-over par, so Masters champ Adam Scott (7-over 147) is in, but a slew of stars are out, including recent Open champs Graeme McDowell (2010, but 13-over 153), Michael Campbell (2005, 14-over 154), Angel Cabrera (2007, 15-over 155), and Jim Furyk (2003) and Lucas Glover (2009), both at 16-over 156.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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