"Today really felt like a U.S. Open, I can tell you that," said Xander Schauffele, a hip pick to win who collected a 72 by midday following bogeys on Nos. 17 and 18 and a general lack of angst. He had sunk to even par but readied to go watch everybody sink similarly or further until he remained squarely in contention.
It did happen that way: Tied for seventh, he sat four shots behind leader Patrick Reed, three behind Bryson DeChambeau, two behind a trio of Justin Thomas, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Harris English, and one behind Jason Kokrak. That's all after DeChambeau finished at midday but Reed labored on toward dusk, reached a front green-side bunker in two at par-5 No. 9, knocked it to six feet and birdied.
"I love when it's hard," said Reed, the 2018 Masters champion.
Clearly. Way back at midday, that dear old mantra of certain blessed golf majors had taken hold: Finish, get out of here, go find a couch, watch the others suffer.
"I mean, I'm going to enjoy watching the golf this afternoon from my sofa," said Thomas Pieters, the 28-year-old Belgian whose 74 on Friday and 66 on Thursday felt like equals and left him even. The play-and-go path also described DeChambeau, his shining score of 3 under and his shining 2-under 68 of Friday spending the afternoon up there winking amid collapsing scores.
"My iron play was impeccable," the physics major said with a physics major's "impeccable" conferring serious impeccability. The booming 27-year-old with six tour wins said, "Confidence is at an all-time high right now, driving it well, iron play is fantastic, wedging is getting better each and every day, and I'm putting it like I know I can." He spoke of preferring horror and said: "I feel like there's so many holes out here that I can take advantage of [because of his distance] that some people can't. Now, that doesn't mean that I'm going to win or anything."
And then he repaired to watch the human suffering. "I think it's relatable to a lot of players out there [in the TV audience]," he said. "They struggle with their game, and they don't hit the greatest shots, and they like seeing carnage. I'm going to look this afternoon and do the same thing."
He vowed to practice sympathy, not schadenfreude.
After a subdued Thursday, the mighty course seemed begrudged enough to hint at one hell of a hellish weekend ahead.
"It's a U.S. Open. We get it once a year where it's a gouge-fest, and if it gets harder, so be it," said Schauffele, the No. 7 player in the world who has three top-sixes in three U.S. Opens.
Thereby did "gouge-fest" dance with "carnage" in the day's excellent parlance, saving room for "baked-out," which is what 21-year-old phenom Michael Wolff saw evolving with the once-soft greens as he clung gamely to even par.
"There were a few [holes] out there," Schauffele said, "where you're playing defense all the way through." The time came even for some optical illusions worthy of Dalí, as when Cabrera Bello of Spain stood at an excellent 2 under after an excellent 70 and said, "With the wind picking up, it definitely makes the fairways relatively smaller."
And with the wind running around reshaping things, the lack of 2½ hours of daylight compared with mid-June, the original time slot for this postponed event, brought worry that some might play in darkness.
Maybe most everybody played in a certain darkness. Maybe the sunshine lied.
Rory McIlroy, so promising Thursday with his 67, fell to a 76 to sit at 3 over. Alongside was No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who hadn't joined in the unholy merriment of Thursday but rebounded Friday by posting his early, even-par 70. Thomas, fresh off that 65 of Thursday, had woes such as a three-putt No. 1 (his 10th hole) from 21 feet for a double-bogey six, but he recovered to a 73 and remained in the thick.
"Every single person in this tournament is going to go through a stretch where they get a bad run, especially here," he said.
Tiger Woods missed the cut with a garish 77 with double bogeys on Nos. 16 and 18 (his seventh and ninth holes) and five other bogeys, even while birdieing two of his closing three to climb back to 10 over. PGA champion Collin Morikawa tightroped the cut all afternoon and then missed it by a shot at 7 over when his 12-foot putt on his closing No. 9 pulled up an inch and a half from the hole, as if to turn around and sneer.
So Reed held up impressively. He found his even-par 70 "definitely a positive" given his stated inability to hit "qualify golf shots or anything like that." He said of his past six weeks or so, "Been hitting a lot of fairways." He joined those reveling in the hardship, as when Schauffele said, "I'm probably just a sick person that enjoys doing it, playing in it."
It looked like a promising weekend for talented sickos.