Commentary

'We're all playing for second'

Updated: June 18, 2011, 12:39 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

BETHESDA, Md. -- This is his 21st U.S. Open, and only a handful of times has Phil Mickelson been in a better position in terms of score through two rounds of the national championship.

After a first-round 74, Lefty rebounded with a 69 on Friday that included a double-bogey at the last hole. Although that left a sour taste, he still stands at 1 over -- a good spot through 36 holes at the U.S. Open.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson stands at 1 over for the U.S. Open through 36 holes. Normally, that would be in prime position to vie for the title. This year, though, Rory McIlroy is throwing all the usual trends out of whack.

Usually.

In just about any other Open, Mickelson would have been right in the mix to win the championship with 36 holes to play.

Instead, he's fighting to be relevant in the B Flight, six shots back of Y.E. Yang -- which is really about where you would expect the leader of the tournament to reside.

Mickelson finds himself 12 strokes back of leader Rory McIlroy, who followed his first-round 65 with a 66 and set the 36-hole U.S. Open scoring record in the process with a total of 131.

Had he not been playing alongside McIlroy, 22, for the first two rounds, Mickelson, 41, might not have believed that his deficit would be so large.

"It's impressive," Mickelson said. "He's striking it flawlessly and he's putting great on these greens. His first two rounds were very impressive."

What more could he say?

Mickelson came into the U.S. Open with high hopes of winning the tournament for the first time and adding to his four major championships. Five times he's been runner-up in the tournament, and Congressional Country Club seemed very much to suit his game.

But an abundance of wayward drives had Mickelson playing from the trees too often. Had he been able to make par at the last hole instead of double-bogey, he would have had an impressive 67 that would have put him 1 under par.

And that still would have left him 10 back. Take it further and give him an even-par 71 in the first round, and he'd still be eight strokes behind McIlroy.

The Northern Irishman's 36-hole lead tied the biggest in the history of the U.S. Open, equal to the six-shot advantage Tiger Woods had on the way to a 15-stroke victory at the 2000 U.S. Open. Before that, the largest lead through two rounds in the 111 years of the tournament was five strokes -- by Willie Anderson in 1903.

"It's pretty special, like Tiger [Woods] at Augusta 14 years ago," said Brandt Snedeker, who is nine strokes back and tied for third place. "I don't see mid-60s back to back out there. When you're in that zone and playing great and putts are coming off every time … you've got a lot of wedges on the front nine, you can shoot a low number. But it's so exacting and so precise. He's played phenomenal. It's pretty impressive.

"To be honest, we're all playing for second. Unless he does something, kind of comes back to us. I don't see anybody shooting 65-65 on the weekend. I think 3 under, 3 under would be great on the weekend, but it's only going to get tougher. I can't imagine that the USGA is too happy that anyone is 11 under through two rounds."

According to Mike Davis, that is not the case. The executive director of the United States Golf Association, who also sets up the course, said he felt a good number was coming when he walked off the Congressional course early Thursday morning.

"What's great is to be able to shoot the score," Davis said. "It's kind of like Tiger at Pebble Beach in 2000. He was 12 under and nobody else was better than 3 over. I think it's fantastic. He hit the shots and was rewarded."

Rickie Fowler got a taste of how good McIlroy is when he played with him during the first two rounds of the Masters, where he opened with scores of 65 and 69, sharing the lead after the first round and putting himself in the weekend mix.

"He drives it long and straight and he likes to draw the ball so a few holes set up good for him here," said Fowler, who is 5 over for the tournament. "When he gets good numbers into greens and can hit full shots, he's deadly with his irons. And he's made a few putts on top of that.

"When it was playing a little softer, I saw a good number out there. I saw 4 or 5 or 6 under, but to do it two days in a row is golfing your ball. No matter what, to play that well until his last hole and basically back up the first round … it's not easy to do."

Sergio Garcia could only shake his head. He wasn't pleased with the way he played Friday, adding a 71 to his opening 69. But it's all relative. To be 2 under par through two rounds at a U.S Open is typically a good spot.

To put it in perspective, 2 under par matches Garcia's best 36-hole start in a U.S. Open. He was 2 under through two rounds 10 years ago at Southern Hills, where he was in contention until a final-round 77 dropped him to a tie for 12th.

Here he is tied for third, but nine strokes back.

"I think it would be great for him to win," Garcia said of McIlroy. "He's a wonderful player, very nice kid. Even if what happened at Augusta would not have happened, it would be nice for him to win. I think he deserves it, and hopefully he'll be able to do it."

Garcia waved off the notion of trying to catch McIlroy. "I have bigger worries than Rory McIlroy," he said.

Mickelson might say the same thing. He came here with high expectations and a game that seemed to be in good shape -- just as it was going into the Masters.

But so far it's been far from good enough.

"It was a disappointing finish with that double, but I'm still struggling," he said. "Even though I was able to shoot under par today, I was still struggling with it. Rather than go work on it, I think I'm going to try to figure out what it is I need to work on first and then get back to the range."

Rory McIlroy had a lot of players perplexed as to what to do next.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com