The top-three grouping of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott has drawn the most attention at the 2013 U.S. Open, but entering the third day, other noteworthy players are making headlines.
Phil Mickelson fired an opening-round 67 and backed it up with stellar play on Friday to sit at one under-par, tied with American young gun Billy Horschel for the 36-hole lead.
Luke Donald is also within striking distance and just a shot back after a second-round 72—despite a stretch in which he bogeyed five out of six holes. The former world No. 1 is seeking his first major win.
This is a significant storyline, because Mickelson has an unmatched five runner-up finishes in this championship without winning, while Donald is arguably the greatest player never to have won a major.
Then there's Horschel, who won the Zurich Classic in April and has been extremely consistent, which was evident in a second round where he hit all 18 greens in regulation, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Either player emerging victorious would make the 113th U.S. Open a particularly memorable and sentimental one.
However, there are other players in the hunt as well. So let's break down what to expect from the top stars that are in the best respective positions to capture the trophy this weekend.
The characteristically sound short game that defines Donald kept his momentum going on Friday. He wrapped up his first round by bogeying two of his last three holes, but in starting on No. 11 in Round 2, birdied No. 12 and 13 just as he did the previous day.
Most players have been eating up the short par-three 13th by sticking it close. That wasn't the case with Donald, who opted to chip it in from just over the green to keep his positive momentum going:
Steve Elling points out how relatively poor Donald's form has been in 2013—mostly due to his ranking of 149th in greens in regulation percentage on the PGA Tour:
Donald is known for his steadiness, but the bogey train he rode on Friday threatened to derail his U.S. Open.
Even still, he's been the most explosive player in the field thus far, leading his peers with nine birdies in his bid to notch his maiden major breakthrough. Other than two top-four finishes, it has been a rather listless season for Donald.
It's been a complete 180-degree turnaround at the perfect time, though. Nothing indicates that Donald won't be a significant factor.
Given his low spin, phenomenal wedge play and prowess around the greens, Donald should become even more dangerous as conditions dry out.
It's almost fitting that Mickelson finished in second at the FedEx St. Jude Classic last week, considering all the close calls he's had at the U.S. Open in his career.
Mickelson missed just three fairways and four greens in the opening round, proving that he wasn't at all hampered by flying to San Diego and attending his daughter's eighth-grade graduation.
The narrative took a bit of a different shape for Lefty on Friday. In fact, he didn't even manage a birdie through the first 17 holes.
However, at the most difficult hole on the course in No. 18, Mickelson buried a birdie to match Horschel at one under and will have plenty of rest before he takes to the treacherous Merion course yet again.
Kelly Tilghman of Golf Channel highlighted just how special this win would be for Mickelson, who is a five-time runner-up:
After the round, Mickelson told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi that he missed a lot of birdie opportunities and that the score was not what he thought it should be. Even so, he was pleased with his effort, and it has resulted in an ideal position to finally capture his first U.S. Open trophy.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy
It's been a valiant effort from Woods, as he is clearly battling through a painful left elbow injury. His efforts have resulted in matching McIlroy's first two rounds of 73 and 70, which ties them in 17th at plus-three.
As Golf Channel's Ryan Lavner alludes to, though, the last time Woods won a major was the 2008 U.S. Open, and he wasn't exactly in the best of health:
Whether it's the injury or a letdown after such a difficult grind in Round 2, Woods may unfortunately suffer a setback on Saturday.
McIlroy may be overlooked despite matching Woods' score while playing alongside him. The Northern Irishman hasn't won a major in his brief, bright career without doing so in runaway fashion, either, and he must putt better to have a chance.
What is certain is that McIlroy's long game is on, and as long as he can roll the rock slightly better, he'll be as much of a threat to catch Horschel and Mickelson as anyone.
After all, it's only a matter of time before McIlroy snaps his winless drought in 2013.