Rory McIlroy made a hasty retreat at the U.S. Open on Friday – both from the leaderboard and the golf course.
After an opening birdie on the first backed up the promise of his opening-round 67 and had him sitting one shot off the lead at Winged Foot, McIlroy’s game and mood quickly went south on the West Course.
He played his next six holes in 6-over as the wind sharpened Winged Foot’s bite, finishing with a 76 that left him 3-over par for the tournament and tied for 22nd seven shots behind 36-hole leader Patrick Reed.
What McIlroy thought of the tougher courses and his struggles on it left the grounds with him as he declined all requests to comment after signing his card. The comfortable rhythm he had on Thursday was gone as soon as he fanned his approach on the second hole well right of the green.
Everything seemed to be a grind after that, as the bounce in his step was gone and the expression on his face grim with frustration.
Despite ranking fifth in the field hitting 64 percent of his fairways for the second straight day, he made seven bogeys, one double, three birdies and only two pars in his first 13 holes before getting into the clubhouse with five consecutive pars to avoid further damage to his weekend hopes.
McIlroy was far from alone in his struggles on Friday as the course fought back after giving up record low scores the day before. Only three players broke par on Friday, with Bryson DeChambeau making eagle on his last hole (the par-5 ninth) to shoot the day’s low 68 and set the morning lead in the clubhouse at the 3-under mark where McIlroy started his day.
Reed – who prevailed in the 2018 Masters in the final pairing with McIlroy – cobbled together an even-par round of 70 that included five birdies, five bogeys and a number of the par saves McIlroy couldn’t muster to claim the halfway lead at 4-under par.
Only six players remain under par for the tournament after 21 shot in the 60s on Thursday.
First-round leader Justin Thomas (65-73) made two late birdies to get back in the red at 2-under and tied for third with Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Harris English. Jason Kokrak is alone in sixth at 1-under while the crowd at even-par includes Thomas Pieters, Xander Schauffele, Brendon Todd, Matthew Wolff and Hideki Matsuyama.
“Really tough,” said Pieters, who held the lead alone at the turn Friday morning at 6-under before making six bogeys on his second nine. “I mean, I'm going to enjoy watching the golf this afternoon from my sofa.”
Plenty couldn’t make it to their sofas soon enough. Louis Oosthuizen was tied with DeChambeau at 3- under before dropping four shots on his last three holes to finish at 1-over.
Bubba Watson was having the round of the day at 3-under until he doubled the 18th hole to drop to even par. Lee Westwood was hanging on at 1-under until he also threw away four shots on his last three holes.
“Just a disappointing finish,” Westwood lamented.
Even par went a long way Friday, with Dustin Johnson and Daniel Berger catching up with McIlroy to stay at 3-over by treading water.
“I think still on this golf course with the conditions that we're supposed to have the next couple days, I don't feel like I'm out of it,” said Johnson, the world No. 1 who is in the same position as McIlroy.
“I'm going to have to play really well, but I like where I'm at. I think obviously two solid rounds and right back in the mix.”
Shane Lowry rode two late birdies of his own to shoot even par and make the cut on the number at 6- over, delaying his return home for next week’s Dubai Duty-Free Irish Open.
“Not that I'm making excuses, I've just had a long stint away from home, and I'm just ready to get home at this stage and ready to get back to my family,” Lowry said before the cut line slipped far enough to let him in the weekend.
“Hopefully, I get two more days, but if not, I'll get a flight (home).
"Look, it is what it is, but I did trip myself up the first day anyway. … You just kind of need to move on and hopefully get a shot at the weekend, and I can chip away at these numbers.”
Missing the cut were Graeme McDowell (76-80) and amateur James Sugrue (78-79).
Tiger Woods missed the U.S. Open cut at Winged Foot for the second time in his career, shooting 77 to finish 10-over. He said he’ll take a break before preparing to defend two of his 2019 titles to end the year at the Zozo Championship moved from Japan to Sherwood Country Club and the Masters in November.
“There's still one more major to go, and my title defense at Sherwood,” he said.
“We have a couple big, big things ahead of us.” Among other headliners going home early are defending champion Gary Woodland, reigning PGA champ Collin Morikawa, Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson.
Saturday, meanwhile, sets up a contrast of styles in the final pairing with Reed and DeChambeau. Each of them handled the challenges presented them Friday, bouncing back quickly after mistakes – Reed utilizing his deft short game and DeChambeau taking the good with the bad that his massive drives produce.
“It's completely different,” Reed said of the way he and DeChambeau play.
“You know, he sends it to the moon. I hit it underneath the trees, he hits it over the trees.” DeChambeau is trying to impose his will on a golf course that has always resisted such bold play. His performance was illustrated on the par-5 ninth when he hit 9-iron to 6 feet after a 380-yard drive for a walk-off eagle.
“Confidence is at an all-time high right now, driving it well, iron play is fantastic, wedging is getting better each and every day, and I'm putting it like I know I can. So very happy,” DeChambeau said.
“I want it to play as hard as possible. I feel like there's so many holes out here that I can take advantage of that some people can't.
"Now, that doesn't mean that I'm going to win or anything. You've still got to execute. … I still have to work on hitting it straight while hitting it far. And that's a unique combo that I'm going to strive for for the rest of my life.”