Rory McIlroy’s wild ride of survival to US Open contention

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Watching Rory McIlroy play golf can be an exhausting experience. One minute, all seems to be going well. The next minute, he’s hanging on by a thread, trying to survive. Such was his second round of the 119th U.S. Open on Friday at Pebble Beach.

But when the roller coaster came to an end, McIlroy posted a 2-under 69 to climb to 5-under heading into what should be a wild weekend at Pebble Beach.

“Hey two rounds in the 60s,” McIlroy said adding his opening round 68 on Thursday. “If [there’s] another couple rounds in the 60s, I’ll take my chances.”

The truth is, nothing can be taken for granted at Pebble Beach, where the storied course could change from vulnerable to volatile for the final 36 holes. The USGA has been cautious not to repeat past mistakes and dry out the course too soon. But the greens began to firm up Friday afternoon. Expect conditions to become fast and crusty heading toward Sunday’s final round.

“It’s not going to be easy over the weekend,” McIlroy said, adding, “It definitely played firmer than it played [Thursday]. I’d like to see that trend continue.”

The U.S. Open is normally a plodding affair with very few birdies. But this U.S. Open has been thrill-a-minute with chip-ins and birdies galore.

McIlroy was in the middle of it all, and enduring opposite extremes. He was enjoying a solid round, shooting 3-under on the day before suffering a bogey at the par-4 13th when his second shot sailed into the right green-side bunker and he couldn’t make the 10-footer for par. It ended a streak of 29 holes without a bogey.

But his real trouble came at the par-5 14th. His drive landed in the heavy rough and though he punched out into the fairway, his third shot spun back off the green and back down the fairway. His fourth shot was stubbed into the front bunker and it took three more shots to get into the hole. It was a costly double-bogey 7 on what should have been a routine par-5.

“You’re in an awkward spot,” McIlroy said of his fourth shot. “You’re trying to play a very precise shot to get close to the hole and save par. That didn’t go to plan. It just sort of compounded the error with another error, which you never really want to do.”

As costly as that mistake seemed, McIlroy remains in contention after making back-to-back birdies to salvage his round. Though his drive at the par-4 15th found a fairway bunker, he hit a brilliant second shot out of the sand to within five feet of the cup. He made the putt for birdie and added another at the par-4 16th.

After smashing a drive, his second shot landed on the back fringe. Facing a difficult downhill putt, McIlroy read the left-to-right break perfectly and collected his fifth birdie of the day. The fist pump validated the turn in momentum and allowed the Irishman to feel good about his round after closing with two pars.

“I bounced back well,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t hit a great tee shot off 15, but the fairway bunker shot turned everything around. It was nice to see a shot like that and roll that putt for birdie. And then it was sort of a bonus holing in from the back of 16. I didn’t quite get those three shots back, but 2-under for the last four after what happened, I’m really happy with my position going into the weekend.”

McIlroy will start the third round four shots behind Gary Woodland, who posted a 6-under 65 on Friday and is at 9-under after 36 holes. It’s the first time Woodland will take a lead into the weekend at a major.

No one knows really what to expect. It could continue to be a shootout if the course remains vulnerable. But it could turn into what the U.S. Open usually turns into — a survival of the fittest.

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