SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Open is the cruelest of creatures, and over the course of four days, no one is immune from its tentacles. Not the player who won it the year before. Not the player ranked as the best in the world. Not the player who took the Masters. Not even the player who just may be the best of all-time.
So Rory McIlroy, the defending champ, can be chewed up and spit out, missing the cut. Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world rankings, can join him. Bubba Watson, whose performance at Augusta National reinvigorated golf, has the weekend off as well.
And Tiger Woods, fresh after taking the lead all by himself Friday — and looking very much like he might never relinquish it — can make three straight bogeys, handing his advantage right back.
“It was tough,” Woods said. “It was really, really tough.”
The Olympic Club, gorgeous to the eye, has been the unkindest host for the 112th Open. At the end of Friday’s second round, it had allowed three players — Woods, Jim Furyk and David Toms, major winners all — to stand under par, all by just a stroke. Woods and Toms shot matching, even-par 70s in a quick and dry afternoon, Furyk a 1-under 69 in the morning.
What, then, would be the best strategy over the weekend, when it’s quite possible that the 1-under lead would hold up as the winning score?
“‘Plod,’ I think, is a good word,” Furyk said. “You take what the course gives you and play the best you can from there.”
When Furyk is at his best, that is exactly how he plays. The 2003 U.S. Open champion is coming off a miserable 2011 season. He entered this year with new equipment, a new level of fitness, and what he hoped was a new approach. At 42, he is experienced and savvy enough to be able to stare Olympic in the face and not be tricked by what it presents, yet young enough to believe he could and should contend for another major.
“I still feel like I’ve got some game,” he said.
It is game that is well-suited to what the U.S. Golf Association has presented here: fairways that can appear almost nonexistent from the tee box, greens that seem to take joy in receiving and rejecting what look to be good shots, pins that couldn’t be accessed given a security code.
“You got to play Jim Furyk golf,” said Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ who sits at 1 over and played the first two rounds with Furyk. “Doesn’t take chances he doesn’t have to take on. He gets it back in the fairway. He putts well. Holes out well. Takes his chances when it comes.”
Toms, too, can do that. The winner of the 2001 PGA Championship, he has taken advantage of the fact that Olympic is that rare U.S. Open course in which length off the tee is not a primary requirement. He was able to shake off his two bogeys, made at the difficult first and the near-impossible sixth, and stay steady, even for the day.
“I just hung in there,” Toms said.
A recipe for success here, one McIlroy did not find. He followed his ugly, opening 77 with a 73 on Friday that made him the first defending U.S. Open champion to miss the cut since Angel Cabrera in 2008. His takeaway from it all was simple.
“It doesn’t come easy to you all the time,” McIlroy said, and his play of late has been an unwanted reminder of that. In his last five events, McIlroy has advanced to the weekend just once. A year ago, around squishy Congressional Country Club, he shot rounds of 65 and 66 to take a six-shot lead into the weekend, making 11 birdies and an eagle along the way. It was a remarkable performance, but one not at all in line with the reputation of the U.S. Open. The past two days? He made 13 bogeys and three birdies, and left examining the state of his game – both physically and mentally.
“It hasn’t been the greatest run over the last sort of six weeks, or whatever it is,” McIlroy said. “But as I said, I still see enough good stuff in the rounds that it does give me hope that it’s not very far away.”
It might not be very far away, but McIlroy will be. He isn’t alone. Donald — at No. 1, the only player ranked higher in the world than McIlroy — will also put Olympic far behind after navigating it in 11 over, three shots worse than the cut line. Watson also is gone, 9 over.
“I felt a little uncomfortable,” Donald said.
Who, then, feels comfortable here? Furyk and Toms, it seems, two methodical, mature thinkers. And, of course, Woods.
“You have to stay patient,” Woods said. “Got to stay present.”
So he was. His string of bogeys came at 5, 6 and 7, and took him from the lead to 1 over for the event. But he hit a lovely 5-iron to restore order at the par-3 eighth, then curled in a 25-footer at the 10th to get back to even. His final birdie came at the par-3 13th, and he did what he had to do – “just plodding along,” he said – coming in.
“Plod.” There’s that word again. It is, perhaps, the only approach, because even as players try to tip-toe around Olympic, hoping not to awaken it, the nature of the course and the event wake up, and even the best players in the world can succumb.