Treacherous weather conditions left golfers running for the clubhouse and rounds unfinished in Round 1, but that was nothing compared to the despair felt by many players in Friday's second round.
While rain played no factor in Round 2 action, the world's top golfers faced even more difficult conditions on Friday—Merion Golf Club's difficult East Course. With about half of the field still needing to finish their Round 1 action after Thursday's suspension, the marathon day proved to be a little more than some players could handle.
Scores in the second round went into the mid-to-high 70s (with a few exceptions) as deep rough and demanding hole locations left most of the field hoping for par.
Two men stood above the test.
Sitting in the clubhouse lead—there are still plenty of players whose second rounds were unable to finish Friday due to darkness—are Billy Horschel and Phil Mickelson.
Firing accurate shot after accurate shot, Horschel had the best score of the day with a three-under score of 67, combining with his two-over 72 in the first round for a one-under overall lead. As noted by ESPN's Justin Ray, Horschel was a complete anomaly in the field on Friday, with his score being 7.5 strokes better than the average when he walked into the clubhouse.
Phil Mickelson, who was the clubhouse leader after a Day 1 score of 67, faltered a bit in his quest for his first U.S. Open title—at least until his final hole. The five-time runner-up had matched his three-under score with an equal score in the opposite direction in Round 2, but he was given an opportunity for one last shot on No. 18 before play ended.
Lefty drained his birdie putt, his only one of the day, to tie Horschel heading into the clubhouse.
Horschel and Mickelson sit one stroke ahead of a five-man gaggle of golfers, including Justin Rose. Here is a look at how the remainder of the second-round leaderboard looks, with golfers still yet to finish their second rounds.
Almost equally excellent to Horschel was Rose, who flirted with the top of the leaderboard all day en route to finishing with a one-under score of 69, even-par overall. Rose stuck to the script of the day, navigating the difficult East Course with a precision that was rare on Friday. His game plan was mostly conservative, careful on the approach—a smart decision on a course that punishes over-aggression.
Though the ultimate downfall of Rose's day was his putting—he missed quite a few that looked like gimmes, which happened to many on Friday—but this long knockdown on No. 2 put him into a tie for the lead at the time.
Likewise, Mickelson's strategy was strong, but the execution for red numbers was lacking. He failed to record an under-par score for the first 17 holes, until that fateful decision helped his cause. It also didn't help that the Merion crowd seemed more concerned with his diet than ability to have a proper backswing:
Elsewhere on the leaderboard, Steve Stricker and Luke Donald both finished their days strong to come in at even-par for the tournament. Stricker and Donald played rounds perfectly within their personality, with the consummate bastion of consistency Stricker keeping things calm while Donald's round was so up and down it should have been a theme park attraction.
Speaking of inconsistency, that would be the perfect way to describe the days of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy—the main attractions in this year's event for most. The world's two top-ranked golfers are three-over for the tournament, hanging right in contention despite some frustrating shots.
Woods, who had to finish his first round early on Friday along with McIlroy and Adam Scott, showed no real signs that his elbow injury was affecting him in the second round. He carded an even-par score of 70, a good sign after finishing Round 1 at three over.
The problem with Woods has been that he's been unable to find consistency. There have been shots where he looks like the best player in the world, like this:
Only they've been juxtaposed with ones like this, which are familiarly frustrating for those who have watched him the past half-decade:
The same could be said for McIlroy, whose scores mirrored Woods in both rounds. With tee placements likely to only worsen the remainder of the weekend, the world's two best golfers have to both be happy that they kept thing afloat while also frustrated that they left strokes on the course.
On the bright side, at least neither Woods nor McIlroy had the day of their other playing partner.
After sitting at three-under through the 11 holes he got through on Day 1, Masters champion Adam Scott fell apart on Friday. Starting with hole No. 12 in his first round, Scott began a day that would see him fall from the leaderboard to the cut line. Scott played holes No. 12 through No. 18 at five-over par and then embarked on a second round that only continued those struggles.
Scott finished with a five-over 75 in the second round, flailing with almost every club in his bag. Jay Coffin of Golf Channel noted how "out of sorts" the Masters champion looked:
As of now, Scott is expected to make the projected cut of seven-over. But he's far closer to it than anyone could have imagined after Thursday.
While most will spend the remainder of their evening extolling the virtues of Mickelson and his quest to get over the U.S. Open hump at Merion or any of the other big-name stories, Friday unquestionably belonged to Horschel.
The 26-year-old Florida grad was a bastion of accuracy in his second round, hitting all 18 greens in regulation—the first time in over two decades anyone has accomplished that feat.
On a day where everyone seemed to bow at the East Course, Horschel was consistent, composed and wavered only once—a bogey on the par-three 13th hole. Horschel spoke after his round, at the time the clubhouse leader, and showed a supreme confidence in his ability as a ball striker, per Stephanie Wei:
It was especially impressive considering the harsh conditions leftover from Thursday. Olympic skier and Tiger Woods' girlfriend Lindsey Vonn sent out an Instagram photo that highlighted the muddy atmosphere still prevalent around the course:
Nevertheless, Horschel prevailed. He will likely stand at the No. 1 tee box next to one of the greatest golfers in history on Saturday, looking to push for his first U.S. Open crown in his second-ever major start.
Will Horschel be able to pull it off? That's unclear. But his journey is one of the many reasons the weekend shapes up to be tantalizing at Merion.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: