Many of golf's biggest names are stepping up at golf's toughest tournament.
Collin Morikawa (-5), Rory McIlroy (-4) and Jon Rahm (-4) — with a combined seven majors between them — top the leaderboard at the U.S. Open, along with qualifier Joel Dahmen (-5), after two tough but not impossible days at The Country Club in Brookline. The city of Boston was still recovering from Thursday night's NBA Finals loss, but the course was welcoming, particularly in the afternoon. Most of the players at the top of the leaderboard won the favorable Thursday morning/Friday afternoon draw, with light winds and warm temperatures keeping the course playable.
Morikawa posted the clubhouse lead at -5 after two days that saw him incorporating a draw into his repertoire as well as a cut. The significance of strong play at the 36-hole mark for Morikawa is obvious: if he wins this week, he'll be three-fourths of the way to a career Grand Slam at age 25, lacking only the Masters for the quartet. McIlroy (Masters), Jordan Spieth (PGA Championship) and Phil Mickelson (U.S. Open) are the only active players with just one major remaining in the career slam. Predictably, he didn't want to get ahead of himself and go there just yet.
"I can't really talk about what it would be like to win this one," he said. "I've got to focus on [Saturday]. I've got to stick to my game plan. I've got to make sure I don't run out of steam, which I kind of have been through that kind of little stretch after nine holes. I've just got to figure out a way to focus a little bit deeper and really get dialed in for the next 36."
Also at the top, because golf loves a good storyline: Dahmen, who had to qualify his way into this year's Open. He's only played in three U.S. Opens in all, and before this week hadn't made a cut. A brilliant 60-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole gave Dahmen a share of the lead:
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 17, 2022
One stroke behind Morikawa and Dahmen stand Rahm, the defending champion, and McIlroy, seeking his first major in eight years. After some treacherous moments, Rahm steadied himself and closed with two birdies in the final five holes to roll into the weekend with momentum.
"We definitely got in the right side of the wave this time," Rahm said. "I don't know how much the scoring difference is, but it went from looking really bad, maybe rain and thunder, and we didn't know what was going to happen, and extremely windy, to ... perfect sunshine and the wind almost started to die down a little bit. Especially the last few holes. It was kind of about as enjoyable as a U.S. Open walk can be, really."
One player who wasn't enjoying The Country Club, at least early in his round: McIlroy, who nearly saw his entire tournament evaporate on one hole. He dropped his approach on the par 4 third hole into the thick grass beside the green, then chunked two shots before getting out onto the green. He needed to hole a 22-foot putt for double bogey, but that probably saved his tournament.
"You don't want to try to be making 30-footers for 6s," McIlroy said, "but I got it in in the least amount of strokes possible on that hole after what happened."
The cut and the shot of the day
This year's cut ended at +3, down from as high as +5. Four amateurs made the cut; notable names that missed include Shane Lowry, Tony Finau, Cam Smith, Viktor Hovland, and LIV Golf players Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Phil Mickelson.
Shot of the day: Cameron Young's ace at the sixth, a nice recovery from a quadruple-bogey at the third. Whiff of the day: Young's subsequent blown high five attempt:
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 17, 2022
The PGA Tour seriously should send players and caddies to a special school to teach them how to pull off the devilishly difficult high-five.
The weekend: challenges ahead
Speaking of devilish: The Country Club is likely to play tougher over the weekend, particularly if winds pick up as expected. The rough will be longer, the greens will be faster, and the pin locations will be more treacherous. So far, the players have had the edge, but the course is likely to strike back over the weekend. The big names at the top right now might not be there on Saturday night, but if they're as tightly bunched as they are now, the stage will be set for one of the finest major Sundays in years.
"It's fun for all of us because we all want to compete against the best and beat the best, and it's obviously a lot more fun for watching people," Rahm said. "It's great for the game of golf that the highest-ranked players and the best players are up there, especially in the tournament where truly the best player ends up winning."
"I certainly don't want it to be easy," McIlroy said. "I want guys to go out and shoot 65 so I have to go and shoot 64. That's competition, and that's at the heart of this game. I'm excited to be in that mix going into the weekend."
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.