LOS ANGELES — As Rickie Fowler walked up the 18th fairway at Los Angeles Country Club on Friday, fans chanted his name. It was a sound the California native, once ranked among the top five golfers in the world, hadn’t heard in quite a while.
Fowler has a 1-stroke lead over Wyndham Clark at the halfway point of the 123rd U.S. Open. In a tournament that prides itself in being the toughest test in golf, Fowler is already 10 under and has carded 18 birdies (with eight bogeys). It’s the most birdies or better in the first two rounds of a major in the past 30 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“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.”
To win his first major championship, Fowler will have to hold off a loaded leaderboard that includes four-time major champion Rory McIlroy (8 under), Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele (8 under), Harris English (7 under) and reigning LIV Golf League individual champion Dustin Johnson (6 under). World No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler is 5 strokes back, and reigning Open Championship winner Cameron Smith trails by 6.
Going back to 1996, according to Elias Sports Bureau, 24 of the past 27 U.S. Open champions were either leading or within 2 strokes after 36 holes. The exceptions were Matt Fitzpatrick in 2022 (3 back), Brooks Koepka in 2018 (5 back) and Webb Simpson in 2012 (6 back).
Golf fans can complain that Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course isn’t difficult enough for a U.S. Open. But it’s hard to find fault with the leaderboard heading into the weekend.
They’re all chasing Fowler, who finished in the top four of each of the majors in 2014. But then he lost his swing and confidence. He fell to 176th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He didn’t qualify for three of four majors last year.
“I sure hope everyone can relate to struggles because everyone deals with them,” Fowler said. “No one’s perfect. I think you’d be lying if you haven’t been through a tough time, especially if you play golf. I’m looking forward to the weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this good in a tournament, let alone a major. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Here comes the sun
The sun finally emerged from the marine layer above L.A. shortly after players in Friday’s morning wave finished their rounds. It wasn’t good news for players in the afternoon wave.
The North Course was markedly more difficult in the afternoon. The scoring average in the first round was 71.38 with 37 players under par. There were six rounds of 65 or better and 340 birdies or eagles. On Friday, the scoring average was 72.22 with 33 players under par. There was just one round under 65 and 291 birdies or eagles, according to Elias.
“The conditions now, it’s a little brighter, sunnier, a little bit of breeze,” McIlroy said. “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. We’ll see what it’s like at the end of the week.”
English said conditions are now such that the USGA can make the course as difficult as it wants. The weekend forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with high temperatures from 74 to 78 degrees. There’s little chance for rain with winds from 6-7 mph from the south/southwest.
“We saw some [difficulty] with the pin locations today,” English said. “I don’t do AimPoint, but at least 3-percent slope. They can get [greens] as firm and fast as they want and put those pins in some tough spots. It’s going to be fun. The rough is still going to be penal, and I think everybody is going to get the U.S. Open they’ve been wanting to see.”
Another LIV champion?
The LIV Golf League-PGA Tour rivalry has dominated talk around the majors the past two seasons, and this week has been no different after the PGA Tour announced last week that it’s forming an alliance with the DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
Can a LIV Golf League player follow Koepka’s third PGA Championship victory at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, last month? Johnson and Smith are both within striking distance.
Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner, is still in the mix for his third major championship victory, despite carding a quadruple-bogey 8 on the second hole.
DJ hit his drive on No. 2 into a fairway bunker to the left. He popped up his second shot, and his ball landed 95 yards away in the deep rough. Johnson then hit his third shot into a barranca, a narrow gorge, and took an unplayable lie. His fifth shot flew the green, and then he couldn’t get up and down. Somehow, he recovered to card an even-par 70 in the round.
Asked what was his worst shot in the sequence, Johnson said, “Probably the bunker shot, but it really wasn’t that bad. I just caught it a little bit heavy so it came out a little bit left. I was just trying to get it back in the fairway.”
Asked if he hit a good shot while making an 8, DJ said, “No.” With the way Johnson is driving the ball, he feels like he has a chance.
“Obviously, I feel like I’m swinging really well and rolling it good, too,” Johnson said. “So, if I can keep driving it like I am, I’ll be around here on the weekend.”
The USGA might want to put a high fence around the 15th hole. The short par 3 has already surrendered three aces, including Fitzpatrick’s first career hole-in-one as a professional on Friday. The Englishman became the first defending champion to record an ace at the U.S. Open. France’s Matthieu Pavon and American Sam Burns each had one in the first round.
“Without that, I probably wouldn’t be here for the weekend,” said Fitzpatrick, who is 1-over 141 after 36 holes. “So, yeah, it was needed.”
It is the first time there were three aces at any hole in the U.S. Open since there were four on No. 6 at Oak Hill Country Club in the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Fitzpatrick’s ace came from 115 yards. The USGA is expected to shorten the hole to as few as 78 yards on either Saturday or Sunday, which would make it the shortest par 3 in U.S. Open history. It is a completely different challenge than Nos. 7 and 11, which are two of the longest in the tournament’s history, at 299 yards and 297 yards, respectively.
Fitzpatrick said he prefers the 15th over the other par-3s on the course.
“It’s a great hole,” he said. “It’s miles better than the other two long par-3s. It’s not even a contest. For me, I just think that you got a sand wedge or a lob wedge or a gap wedge in your hand and you’re nervous, and I think that’s the thing.
“That’s why you’re always hitting 3-wood in and 7-wood. You’re not nervous. You’re not thinking about it. You’re just trying to hit it as hard as you can and get it to the green. There’s no real thought process in it, behind it.”
Six-time major champion Phil Mickelson’s 53rd birthday on Friday wasn’t much of a celebration, at least not at the golf course. Mickelson is headed home after finishing 3 over after 36 holes, missing the cut by 1 stroke.
Mickelson failed in his ninth attempt to become the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam. He has missed the cut in three of his past four U.S. Open starts. Mickelson declined to speak to reporters after the round.
The cut line of 2-over 142 is the lowest in terms of total strokes (LACC is a par-70 course) in U.S. Open history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The previous low was 3-over 143 at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, last year, and Olympia Fields outside Chicago in 2003.
Other players who are headed home after missing the cut include Jordan Spieth (3 over), Mito Pereira (3 over), Justin Rose (4 over), Max Homa (4 over), Adam Scott (5 over), Sungjae Im (6 over), Keegan Bradley (6 over), Jason Day (9 over) and Justin Thomas (14 over).
It was Thomas’ worst scoring total to par in a major.
“Yeah, it’s definitely the lowest I’ve felt,” Thomas said Friday. “It’s pretty, honestly, humiliating and embarrassing shooting scores like that. At a golf course I really, really liked. I thought it was set up very well.”
Where are the roars?
There have been only a handful of noticeable roars on the property this week, for the three hole-in-ones and a couple of eagles. Otherwise, it’s been pretty tame at LACC, especially for a major championship.
“I wish it would have been louder,” Fitzpatrick said of the reaction to his ace. “I wish it was a few more people. But, yeah, I’m surprised there’s not been as many people out as I thought this week.”
The USGA limited ticket sales to only 22,000 per day, including 9,000 for the general public. The rest went to skyboxes, suites, corporate partners and LACC members. There are about 30,000 people on the grounds each day, according to the USGA. It’s also a difficult course to get around.
“The crowds aren’t as big out there,” English said. “A couple tee shots and a couple greens, there’s really nobody around because the fans can’t get around a whole lot.”
It is one of the smallest build-outs in U.S. Open history for the 18th green. Adding grandstands to the other side of the green would have been difficult because of the No. 1 fairway and No. 10 tee. It also would have blocked members’ views from the back porch of the clubhouse.