In at least one important way, the halfway point of the 2022 U.S. Open doesn’t feel all that different from the day before it started.
Certainly, there are stars and household names lined up, all in good position to capture another major championship. But right beside them, there are plenty of journeymen and dreamers and potential one-hit wonders. Maybe, just maybe, it could be their week, instead. Saturday’s tee sheet for Round 3 says a lot. Three of the day’s final five twosomes include a major-title winner paired up with a player who had to go through qualifying to get to America’s open championship.
For every Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy among the top 12 spots of an eclectic halfway leaderboard, there’s a Joel Dahmen or Nick Hardy or Hayden Buckley. For every Scottie Scheffler, there’s a Patrick Rodgers.
“Me and my wife, we watch a lot of horse racing,” said Matthew NeSmith, a qualifier whose 69 put him in a group of five players at 3 under, and gives him a tee time with Scheffler, the reigning Masters champion. “We´re not going to enter any races that we don´t think we can win.”
Only two shots separate Morikawa and Dahmen, who lead the way at 5-under 165, from the rest of the top 12.
Four of this diverse dozen – Morikawa, Rahm, McIlroy and Scheffler – have major titles. Six more – Dahmen, Buckley, Beau Hossler, NeSmith, Rodgers and Hardy – made it to this week by earning spots via 36 holes of qualifying in a process that starts with nearly 9,000 entrants, whittles to 870, then ends with 65 joining the other 91 who had earned exemptions straight into the field.
“It will be a big weekend,” said Dahmen, who seriously considered skipping the qualifying process in exchange for a few weeks off. “We don’t tee off until 3:45 tomorrow. I typically have to be home at 5 for dinner. So, this will be different for sure.”
The golf course they face over the weekend will be unlike most any other they’ve seen, not only because of the craggy, hilly layout at The Country Club, filled with blind shots and a knee-high heather, the likes of which is not common either in weekly play on tour or in other majors. But also because the weekend forecast calls for highs in the 60s with a 10-15 mph wind blowing from the north.
“I would expect over the weekend for it to get a little faster and a little fierier,” McIlroy said. “You have to be pretty precise already, but maybe just that little bit more precise with everything.”
Even under good conditions that greeted most of the players Friday, there was trouble out there. McIlroy needed three shots to hack out of the knee-high fescue near the third green. Once out, he needed to sink a long putt to save double-bogey – a make that grew more important by the hour, as he rallied to work his way back up the leaderboard and finish at 4 under.
“You don´t want to try to be making 30-footers for 6s, but I got it in in the least amount of strokes possible on that hole after what happened,” McIlroy said.
Scheffler was plodding along until he reached the rough about 60 yards away from the hole on the par-5 14th. He hacked it out, the ball ran onto the green and in the hole for an eagle that changed his outlook.
“Had a good lie and a good chip and it went in,” Scheffler said.
He made it sound easy. Getting to this point never is. A quintessential U.S. Open story is the one woven by Buckley. A mere 16 months ago, the 26-year-old journeyman was the first alternate for a Korn Ferry Tour event. He showed up to the driving range and warmed up in the dark so he’d be ready on the slim chance he would get a last-second call to the tee box.
Someone dropped out and the call came. Buckley took advantage by winning the tournament. That led to his PGA Tour card, and gave him the boost of confidence. On Saturday, he’ll have a tee time alongside Rahm in the next-to-last twosome.
“I know from experience what one week can do,” Buckley said. “I think you see it every week.