There's no telling who will fall victim to the diabolical test of a U.S. Open, which is perhaps why it's one of golf's most intriguing and storied traditions. It's redemption for golf fans, who finally get an opportunity to watch the pros—who wreak havoc on courses with birdie barrages week in and week out—wrestle this bear of a golf course.
Sometimes, though, you can hardly believe your eyes.
Scanning the leaderboard to find Billy Horschel's name perched at the top hardly computes considering it's his second-ever major championship appearance. Or even more surprising are the names well below the current cut line (+6), ranging from some of golf's most consistent players like Matt Kuchar to past champions of this very event like Jim Furyk.
Merion Golf Club proved treacherous on Day 2 and revealed the blend of skill and discipline that's required to win on golf's biggest stage. Let's look at the biggest surprises from Friday.
As Yahoo! Golf writer Shane Bacon tweeted, “This number is not a typo – Graeme McDowell made seven (7) double-bogeys in two rounds this week at Merion.”
If you hadn’t guessed, the 2010 U.S. Open champion missed the cut. Big-time.
What makes McDowell’s early exit all the more shocking is that heading into Merion he ranked No. 1 on tour in one of the most critical statistics of a U.S. Open—Driving Accuracy Percentage. Merion’s renown for its incredibly narrow fairways as well as the four to five-inch thick rough awaiting any errant tee shots.
McDowell was primed to pick apart Merion drive by drive and potentially grab hold of his second major on Sunday. Instead, he’ll be probably be watching the final round from his couch.
He underwhelmed, underachieved and did just about everything but shoot under par. He hit a ghastly 17-of-28 fairways, undeniably making it all the more difficult to find greens in regulation (22-of-36). McDowell posted rounds of 76-77 and will do all that he can to forget Merion ever happened.
Adam Scott made a resounding statement in his first 11 holes Thursday at Merion, carding four birdies and just a single bogey to reach three-under par, just one off the Day 1 leader (-4), before play was called due to darkness.
The Masters champion may not have been a favorite to win the U.S. Open—nobody’s won consecutive majors since Padraig Harrington in 2008 (Open Championship, PGA Championship)—but based on his hot start, he looked poised to contend for yet another major.
But when play resumed Friday, the floodgates opened.
Scott went on to make nine bogeys and a double bogey over his next 26 holes. He’d post just one birdie over that horrible span.
It all came down to hitting fairways, as it always does at the U.S. Open. Scott hit just 16 out of 28 fairways and consequently hit a disappointing 23-of-36 greens in regulation. By the middle of his second round, Scott was palpably distressed and would go on to shoot 72-75.
Considering the second round was called due to darkness with golfers still on the course, we don't have a firm cut just yet, and Scott is currently plus-seven, while the cut is plus-six. Most likely, he won't need to stick around.
At least he's got that green jacket to comfort him.
Other than Tiger Woods, Matt Kuchar was the only player in the field this week to have won multiple PGA Tour events in 2013. What made his pair of victories all the more impressive were how deep and talented the fields were; first at the World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play and then the Memorial Tournament just a few weeks ago.
Often considered the most consistent golfer on tour, Kuchar had four other top-10 finishes and the kind of crafty game from tee to green that seemed primed for a U.S. Open track like Merion.
But after two wet, grueling days, Kuchar performed pedestrian at best.
Play was called when he was on his 17th hole, where he's currently seven-over par, one more than the current cut (+6).
Thus far, he's been uncharacteristically playing defense. After struggling to find the fairway consistently, he's consequently missed many of Merion's tiny greens. Kuchar's struggled to adjust, and as a result, he’s quickly faded from contention.
Unless he can make a significant birdie or two, Kuchar will be heading home early when his round finishes on Saturday.
More than six-and-a-half inches of rain soaked Merion Golf Club over the last week-and-a-half, causing a cacophony of golf critics to predict record low scores at this 113th U.S. Open. Softer conditions often equates to more birdies, and when you pair that with Merion's short length, it was easy to assume that golfers would tear the course apart.
Well, when you assume...you know the rest.
Merion has remained a pure, grueling challenge for the world’s most elite golfers, and one that will identify a skilled, disciplined golfer come Sunday.
Just to give you a sense of the course's difficulty, the cut line is at plus-six, and don’t be surprised if the winning score is right around even-par or slightly over par. As FoxSports' senior writer, Robert Lusetich, tweeted, “Merion may not have 18 tough holes, but it’s a tough 18 holes.”
The first two days at Merion did not meet the U.S. Open expectation of a track that plays “hard and fast,” but the softened conditions have not led to a birdie barrage. Instead, it's sent past major champions home early like Adam Scott (+7) and baffled even the grittiest of veterans like Jim Furyk (+16). The weather was the early story of the U.S. Open, but now Merion has deservedly grabbed hold of the spotlight.
On paper, Billy Horschel is a golfer’s conundrum. (He also has a striking resemblance to Batman’s Christian Bale. Anybody else?)
He has absolutely no business being on top of the U.S. Open leaderboard. He’s completely untested, competing in just his second major championship this week. The other was in 2006 at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where he missed the cut.
Despite his inexperience on paper in the majors, Horschel’s shown he’s got plenty of game so far this season. He’s made 14-of-15 cuts, collected six top-10 finishes and even earned his first PGA Tour victory. So we know the kid can play, but to translate his talent in a major championship setting—where every swing brings you one step closer to history—is remarkable.
He’s been a statistical sensation in the first half of this Open, hitting 21-of-28 fairways, and he leads the field in greens in regulation after hitting 31-of-36 greens.
Horschel’s poise has been his most striking characteristic. In the face of the beast that is Merion, he posted just a single bogey against four birdies in his second round, matching the low round of the championship with a 67.
Horschel is definitely the dark horse (dark knight), but if he stays on this pace, he may capture his first major championship in just his second attempt.
Merion is the shortest U.S. Open venue of the last nine years, which makes it all the more surprising that some of golf’s biggest hitters are near the top of the leaderboard.
Course knowledge favors the shorter, straighter hitters. Players who could minimize their mistakes off the tee appear to have an advantage, which is not a trait often associated with the brutes who pound the ball 300 yards on average.
Well, so much for conventional wisdom.
Long-ball hitters like Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, Nicolas Colsaerts and Charl Schwartzel are proving they can manipulate their power to score on one of golf’s most demanding tracks. They're all in contention and show no signs of letting up.