PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. – A three-time PGA Tour winner seeking his first major victory, big-hitting Gary Woodland provided the punctuation Friday with his putter on another atypical low-scoring day at the 119th U.S. Open, traditionally golf’s toughest test.
His 50-foot birdie putt made on Pebble Beach’s rugged ninth hole — his final one — in the evening’s gloaming pushed him to 9 under par after two rounds. It also gives him a two-shot lead over first-round leader and 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose heading into the weekend’s final two days.
Woodland’s 6-under 65 tied Rose’s Thursday round and Tiger Woods’ opening day in 2000 for the lowest score posted in six U.S. Opens played at Pebble Beach.
Major championship winners Louis Oosthuizen, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Zach Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and two-time defending U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka all lurk within six shots.
Woodland grasped the lead late on a day when a seagull tried to eat Phil Mickelson’s golf ball on a fairway and former Masters champion Patrick Reed snapped a wedge over his knee after he muffed two chips in the deep grass surrounding the 18th hole with making the cut on the line. (He did.)
Mickelson is eight shots back at 1 under and will play Saturday’s round matched with Charlie Danielson of Osceola, Wis. Woods is at even par.
Pals with fellow Kansas Jayhawk and former Timberwolves center Cole Aldrich, Woodland is 35 and finding his way at major championships. He didn’t have a top-10 finish in his 27 majors and now has two top-10 finishes in his last four, the past two PGA Championships.
“Short game has come around,” he said simply as explanation.
Known solely as a big hitter once upon a time, Woodland took Friday’s lead with his putter, making crucial putts coming home for par across the rocky cove at the dangerous par-4 eighth and his closing ninth for birdie after his drive ended up in a divot.
He tweaked his putter and now works with the same putting coach who has worked with Rose, McIlroy and Stenson, among many others and now can both bomb it and stroke it.
He also, apparently, now can contend at the majors, too.
“It’s not something that you’re proud of,” Woodland said about all those missed major cuts. “From all those experiences, too, you learn. I’ve been in this position before. I don’t have to be perfect with my ball striking because I have other things that can pick me up. That has been a big confidence boost for me.
Woodland posted the lowest 36-hole score to par in a U.S. Open played at Pebble Beach since Gil Morgan shot that Thursday and Friday in 1992.
When asked about the final two rounds, Woodland said nothing changes.
“Keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Stick to the game plan: Iron off the tee, drivers on some par 5s, make some putts and have some fun.”
Rose trailed by a shot after 36 holes when he won in 2013 at Merion, beating Jason Day and Mickelson by two shots with a winning score of 1 over par.
“I must have worked really hard to get back within one because I got off to a poor start at Merion,” Rose said. “And this week obviously I’ve gotten off to a great start.”
Rose shot 71 and 69 the first two days then — on a par-70 course — and trailed Mickelson by four shots after Thursday’s opening round. Thursday’s 65 and Friday’s 70 on an unusually benign U.S. Open course might be why it seems so dissimilar.
“That’s the best I’ve seen somebody get up-and-down around the golf course for two rounds maybe ever,” said three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, one of Rose’s playing partners for the first two days.
A winner at last week’s Canadian Open after a Sunday 61, McIlroy trails Rose by two shots and Woodland by four. He credits a bunker shot at the 15th hole for transforming a round in which he made double-bogey No. 14 and birdied 15.
“It’s getting tricky out there,” McIlroy said after shooting 69. “The greens are getting a little firm. You have to be precise. The first 11 holes, I was. The last seven, I wasn’t so good. I’ve put myself in good position. I haven’t seen the weekend of a U.S. Open in a few years. I’m just happy to be here.”
Koepka has been there on a U.S. Open weekend recently and despite being five shots back, he still can visualize a third consecutive victory.
“I don’t think there’s a better place to win the U.S. Open,” he said. “That finishing hole is the greatest hole in golf. It’s fun to play. Things could happen on that hole. If you have the chance to hoist the trophy here, it’s pretty special.”