Rickie Fowler holds lead halfway through a major for first time at 2023 U.S. Open
LOS ANGELES — Rickie Fowler was flamboyant as ever Friday in the U.S. Open, not so much with his attire as a golf game so wildly entertaining that he made only four pars in his 2-under 68 that gave him a share of the 36-hole record and a one-shot lead going into the weekend.
Los Angeles Country Club tried to fight back after a record opening day of low scores, and help arrived in the form of a blazing sun and just enough wind to keep the toughest test in golf from turning into a festival of birdies.
Fowler still did his part, making birdies on half of the holes he has played over two rounds. What mattered was leading a major at the halfway point for the first time, and growing confidence that his three-year slump is well behind him.
He was at 10-under 130, tying the U.S. Open record set by Martin Kaymer in 2014 at Pinehurst No. 2. Fowler led by one shot over Wyndham Clark (67), with Rory McIlroy (67) and Xander Schauffele (70) two shots behind.
“Yes, I’m in the lead, but we’re only halfway there,” Fowler said. “Being in the lead is nice, but it really means nothing right now. I’m looking forward to continuing to challenge myself and go out there and try and execute the best I can.”
He started with three straight birdies, all of them from about 6 feet. The two bogeys he made on the front nine were followed by birdies. He started the back nine with two bogeys, only to answer with a 25-foot birdie putt. Back and forth it went, all round, until he finished with a beauty of an approach to 8 feet on the 17th, the hardest hole of the round.
Schauffele, who matched Fowler’s record-breaking 62 on Thursday, had a wild ride of his own.
He was tied for the lead at one point early on the back nine, approaching a few holes that could yield birdies. They produced bogeys instead, both times with a wedge in hand on the par-5 14th and the 115-yard 15th hole.
He birdied the final two holes to stay very much in the game.
“Just leaking some oil,” Schauffele said. “I bogeyed two holes I was supposed to have good birdie looks on. But I’m happy with how I finished.”
Clark, who last month broke through with his first PGA Tour title against an elite field at Quail Hollow, started strong with a bold flop shot that set up a birdie and a 40-foot birdie putt on the back nine, and then he held it together over his final nine holes.
Closing fast was McIlroy, without a major in nine years, overcoming a rugged start with four birdies on his last five holes. He was at 132, the sixth time he has been 8 under or lower going into the weekend at a major. He won three of those previous five times.
“I felt like coming into this week that was going to be a key for me if I could put the ball in play. You can play from there and create some scoring opportunities,” McIlroy said. “That’s really my game plan over the next couple days. Put the ball in play off the tee, and I think I’ll be just fine from there.”
Not to be overlooked was Dustin Johnson, the two-time major champion who made a quadruple-bogey 8 on his second hole with six bad shots, one penalty and a tap-in. The man with golf’s shortest memory rebounded quickly and still shot 70, leaving him four shots behind and very much in the mix going into a weekend.
The North course wasn’t tricky — USGA setup man John Bodenhamer said it would not be as “stupid hard” as it could be — and instead relied on maximum length. That included a pair of par 3s nearly reaching 300 yards.
“I think there was maybe five or six tees that were put back, and then not only that, a lot of times they had a back tee, they had a back pin,” Clark said. “So it was playing pretty long.”
Clark’s two big moments came on the par-5 14th that played 605 yards with a front right pin tucked behind a massive bunker complex. He was all the way to the left in the sticky, gnarly collar of another bunker and sent his shot skyward, over a corner of the sand to the tiny section of green, and then made a 12-footer for birdie.
The other was on the 16th from 40 feet, a putt he misread in the practice round and got right with a scorecard in hand.
McIlroy didn’t envision such low scoring, including his opening 65, which he attributed to cloud cover, condensation and receptive greens.
“The conditions now, it’s a little brighter, sunnier, a little bit of breeze. It’s got the potential to get a little firmer and faster over the next couple days, which will make the scores go up a little bit,” McIlroy said. “We’ll see what it’s like at the end of the week.
“Yes, the course has played maybe a little easier than everyone thought it would, but wouldn’t be surprised on Saturday, Sunday to see it bite back,” McIlroy said. “It should be tough. It should be just as much of a mental grind out there as a physical one.”
McIlroy had his share of mistakes on the back nine with errant shots off the tee, including the 297-yard 11th hole, the second-longest par 3 for a U.S. Open. But he had a 30 on the front nine for the second straight day by taking advantage of the scoring holes and ending his round with a tee shot on the par-3 ninth to 3 feet.
Harris English also shot 30 on the front nine to finish off his 66, leaving him at 7-under 133.
“They can get them as firm and fast as they want and put those pins in some tough spots. It’s going to be fun,” English said. “The rough is still going to be penal. I think everybody is going to get the U.S. Open they’ve been wanting to see.”
On an opening day that featured two 62s (Fowler and Schauffele), the low round belonged to Min Woo Lee, whose 65 left him tied with Johnson at 6-under 134.
Scottie Scheffler was among those five behind.
All of them are chasing Fowler, who is thrilled to be back in this position again. The real test starts Saturday, for Fowler and the rest of the field wondering when a typical U.S. Open will finally arrive.