SAN DIEGO – The US Open boasts of being the most open of all majors, with approximately 9,000 players from all branches of golf having a chance to compete.
The weekend at Torrey Pines features big champions and big contenders, players unknown or unrecognized and all still within reach of that US Open trophy. Nine shots separated first and last.
It starts with Richard Bland, a 48-year-old Englishman who finally won the European Tour in his 478th attempt last month. Bland had a 4 under 67 and only came off his name at the top of the Torrey Pines leaderboard in his fourth major. His first was 23 years ago.
Russell Henley had a chance to build a two-shot lead on Friday afternoon when he stood on the ninth par-5 over an 18-foot birdie putt. He missed, then watched his 2-foot par putt spin out of the cup. That gave him a 70 to join Bland 5 under 137.
You will be in the last group on Saturday with a lot of heavy hitters behind you and a lot more attention. Former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (71) and Matthew Wolff (68), the US Open runner-up at Winged Foot last year, were one shot behind.
Another setback was two-time Masters champions Bubba Watson (67) and Jon Rahm (70), a former Torrey Pines winner and former world number one.
Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau and buddy Brooks Koepka were tied, just five strokes behind. They were tied. You won’t be in the same group.
Also on a straight par 142 was Justin Thomas, who had a 68.
“When I’m back five on a Saturday, I usually have to do 12, 15 plus birdies on the weekend to keep going,” said Thomas. “But this is a US Open. It’s a little different. “
Henley doesn’t know much about Bland other than paying a little attention to golf worldwide and remembering hearing about his British Masters victory to end his long quest for victory.
“I’m sure he doesn’t know anything about me either,” said Henley, a three-time PGA Tour winner who has played 26 majors without a Top 10.
Bland’s victory at the British Masters made him the oldest first-time winner in the history of the European Tour. It was also the start of a series of three tournaments for the top 10 players to get into the US Open. Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have removed the 36-hole qualifying in England.
This is only his fourth major – twice at Royal Birkdale in 1998 and 2017, once at Bethpage Black for the 2009 US Open – and he landed at a high level.
“A lot of people have a lot more on their resumes than I do,” said Bland. “But I’m here to compete and give all I have.”
Oosthuizen, who finished second in the PGA Championship, finished the morning with two pars, crowning a 67 to share the first-round lead with Henley. He didn’t get any further in the second round and shot 71, but was right in the middle of it.
Wolff too, a surprise only because he lost all enjoyment of golf after such a hot start from the state of Oklahoma that he left the game for two months and even missed a major at the PGA Championship. He returned to the toughest test in golf, shooting 70-68, two puttings for Eagle on the final hole.
“It’s great that I got out of here and played well, but I think, more importantly, I’m getting closer and closer to being more comfortable and happy and enjoying it,” said Wolff. “I feel like I enjoyed it a lot, but I still have a long way to go to keep a cool head. Like I said, I’ll probably be working on the same thing for the rest of my career that I’m working on now. “
Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy were going in the wrong direction. Missing the cut in the Masters and PGA championships, Johnson slumped to 4 until a late rally earned him a 73 and a place over the weekend. He was seven behind him. McIlroy had to make two holes on the course for a 73 birdie. He was six behind.
The 36-hole lead at Torrey Pines at the 2008 US Open was 3 under 139. The course is strong as always with plenty of wind, although a layer of ocean has kept the sun from burning out some of the greens. Then the weekend is waiting again.
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The weekend will feature Phil Mickelson, whose skillful scrambling kept him within the cut line and finished with a birdie for a 69. He was seven strokes back to complete the career grand slam.
Bland is going to be a big part of the weekend, and that’s the allure of the US Open.
“I love that about the game,” said defending champion Bryson DeChambeau after a 69 left him five shots. “Anyone, any age group, can play this great game and compete and compete. If you have the skills to get the ball into the hole with the fewest shots, you can be up there with the young guns. “
Bland is the classic journeyman happy to have made a living playing golf for more than two decades, disappointed not to have won until he broke last month, not nearly as surprised as most that he was at the US Open was a draw.