Golf Channel put up an intriguing graphic during its Friday telecast of the 121st U.S. Open Championship. When then-50-year-old Phil Mickelson produced his age-defying victory last month in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, he was No. 115 in the Official World Golf Ranking. This week, that spot in the world ranking is occupied by 48-year-old journeyman Richard Bland, who just happens to share the midway lead at Torrey Pines.
In a year that has been unlike any other – with COVID-19 protocols dominating everything from attendance to travel restrictions – a handful of veterans are enjoying a Fountain-of-Youth style renaissance. Mickelson, who turned 51 on Wednesday, became golf’s oldest major champion. Stewart Cink, 48, has produced a pair of PGA Tour victories in the past nine months. Lee Westwood, another 48-year-old, had consecutive runner-up finishes this spring in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship.
Then there’s Bland, whose perseverance finally paid off on May 15 when he claimed his maiden European Tour victory in his 478th start, defeating Guido Migliozzi in a playoff at the Betfred Masters. A subsequent third-place showing two weeks later in Denmark positioned Bland at the top of a three-event European Tour points series that replaced U.S. Open final qualifying in England that was canceled due to the pandemic.
Bland has taken full advantage of the opportunity, and Friday’s 4-under-par 67 on the 7,664-yard South Course gave him a share of the 36-hole lead with Russell Henley at 5-under 137. Henley (67-70), the first-round co-leader with Louis Oosthuizen, could have held the outright lead if not for a three-putt bogey on the par-5 ninth, his final hole.
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They are one stroke clear of Oosthuizen (67-71), the winner of the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, and 22-year-old wunderkind Matthew Wolff (70-68), the runner-up in last year’s U.S. Open. Two strokes back are two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson (72-67) and Spaniard Jon Rahm (69-70), whose first PGA Tour victory came at Torrey Pines in 2017.
In all, 12 players are under par through 36 holes and another eight are at even-par 142.
As Bland made his post-round interview tour, he recounted how much Mickelson’s PGA win resonated with him. In just his second U.S. Open start – and fourth major-championship appearance – he became the oldest player to hold the 36-hole lead in a U.S. Open, helped along by seven birdies.
“I want to give the gym-goers a run for their money,” said Bland, referring to the young stars who permeate professional golf.
“To lead a major is always pretty special,” he added. “I tied the lead at The Open [Championship at Royal Birkdale] in 2017 for a hole, so it is nice to have it a bit longer than that.”
Perhaps Bland can be this year’s version of Rocco Mediate, another rank-and-file professional who at the age of 45 took eventual winner Tiger Woods to a memorable Monday playoff 13 years ago when the U.S. Open first visited Torrey Pines.
To accomplish that, he’ll have to fend off a bevy of world-class stars with superior résumés. When he arrived here on Monday, Bland immediately felt the course suited his eye, despite its massive length, and a few helpful tips from countrymen Westwood and 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose were beneficial.
During this recent run of success, Bland has driven the ball well, an intangible that goes a long way toward success in a U.S. Open. Through two rounds, Bland has found 19 of 28 fairways and 24 of 36 greens. He also ranks in the top five in putting (1.50 putts per green).
In the final pairing on Saturday, Bland will play alongside a golfer who has played his share of “U.S. Open golf” the first two days. Before his closing three-putt hiccup, Henley, the co-low amateur in the 2010 U.S. Open, was poised to become only the 10th player since 2011 to have two or fewer bogeys through the first 36 holes. Four of those nine had gone on to win the championship.
The 32-year-old Georgian with three PGA Tour wins to his name has hit 26 of 36 greens. Considering he shot a 79 in his only previous round on the South Course (seven years ago in his only Farmers Insurance Open start), Henley has thus far found a formula for success.
“It feels very fair out there,” said Henley, whose last victory came four years ago in the Shell Houston Open. “It feels like you just have to put the ball on the correct side of the hole. It's just been really difficult.”
Welcome to the weekend.
Seventy-one professionals survived the 36-hole cut, which came at 4-over 146, and will play two more rounds this weekend. NBC has 10 hours of live third-round television coverage on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. EDT. Coverage can also be streamed on the U.S. Open app.
- Thirty-six players, including 18-hole co-leader Louis Oosthuizen, completed Round 1 on Friday morning due to a 90-minute fog delay Thursday morning.
- Seven of the nine U.S. Open champions in the field made the cut, including defending champ Bryson DeChambeau and two-time winner Brooks Koepka, both of whom are at even-par 142. Rory McIlroy (143), Dustin Johnson (144), Gary Woodland (145), Martin Kaymer (145) and Jordan Spieth (146) round out the group.
- Hometown favorite and six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson rebounded from a disappointing 75 with a 2-under 69 to make the cut. The two other San Diego natives in the field, Xander Schauffele (140) and Charley Hoffman (143), also will play the weekend, with the former just three strokes off the lead. Schauffele has finished no worse than a tie for sixth in his four previous U.S. Open starts.
- Besides Bland, three other players shot 67 to match Henley’s low round of the championship from Thursday: Bubba Watson, Mackenzie Hughes and 2020 PGA champion Collin Morikawa.
- Chez Reavie had the only bogey-free round on Friday, going eight strokes better than Thursday with a 3-under 68.
- Among the notables to miss the cut were past champions Justin Rose and Webb Simpson, 2020 U.S. Amateur champion Tyler Strafaci, and two of his 2021 USA Walker Cup teammates, Cole Hammer and Pierceson Coody.
- Of the 19 golfers who made it to Torrey Pines via local and final qualifying, only Air Force Academy graduate Kyle Westmoreland (2-over 144) made the cut.
- For the first time since 2007, no amateurs made the cut. Andrew Kozan, a 2021 Auburn University graduate, missed a 4-foot par putt on No. 18 to miss by a stroke.
- Virtually every professional in the field has a sponsor – often an equipment company – on their hat. Co-leader Richard Bland, however, is wearing a cap adorned with the logo from Wisley Golf Club, his home club in Woking, England.
- Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, of Italy, became the first brother tandem to make the 36-hole cut in the same U.S. Open since Joe and Jumbo Ozaki of Japan in 1993. Edoardo won the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion. The other brother duo in this year’s field, Alvaro and Carlos Ortiz, of Mexico, both missed the cut.
- Viktor Hovland withdrew from the championship midway through his second round on Friday with an eye injury.
“I'm fortunate with what I do. I think we all are, whether you're playing on the European Tour, you're playing on the PGA Tour, whatever [circuit]. I think any amateur golfer would probably give their right arm to play it as a living. I just feel privileged that I can do what I can do.” – 36-hole co-leader Richard Bland on why he loves his career, despite just one win on the European Tour
“I think my alignment was getting a little off. I'll go work on that on the range this afternoon. I felt like I drove the ball pretty well. I think I drove the ball better today than I did yesterday. Just need to straighten out the irons a little bit. If I can do that, I should have a good chance.” – Rory McIlroy (1-over 143) on the state of his game
“What happened a couple weeks ago [testing positive for COVID-19] is something I can't control, unfortunately, but what I can do is control what I do. Just following the routine, make sure I'm hydrated, make sure I'm eating, and make sure I'm thinking the right things out there on the golf course. So far I've done a great job, and hopefully I can keep going.” – Jon Rahm after carding a 1-under 70
“I was sleeping and it came to me in the middle of the night. I woke up and was like, hmm, I'm going to try this, and I went out – my intuition is pretty good – and tried it and it worked. Just keeping the right wrist bent for a lot longer through impact. For me it's all about stabilizing the face, and it worked out there for the most part.” – Bryson DeChambeau, on his adjustments ahead of Round 2
“It's a great spot, and I'm out here to win. Four over [on Thursday] didn't really help that, but a 4 under definitely helped. To be only five back on a tough course with two days left, I'm pleased with where I'm at and really look forward to the weekend.” – Collin Morikawa after his 67
“I struck the ball really well, and it made it a lot easier. I was able to play aggressively. I didn't probably take advantage of all of the opportunities that I had, but I played a good solid round of golf. I'm playing well enough to make a run on the weekend.” – Phil Mickelson after shooting 69 to get within seven shots of the lead
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.