Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods ducked and weaved as best they could but tough gal Merion continued to land her punches in what’s turning out to be a fascinating US Open.
Playing together in a major for the first time, there was nothing to separate the world’s top two players as they added level par 70s to their opening 73s to sit just four strokes behind clubhouse leader Billy Horschel and Phil Mickelson on three over par.
“I’m very happy,” McIlroy said despite missing a 10 footer for birdie at the 10th, his final hole. “I’m right in there for the weekend. I don’t think I’ll be too far away by the end of the day.
“Right now, I’m not sure anyone in our half of the draw has finished under par for two days, so I mean something around even par I think is going to be not far away.
“I was trying to get back to that even par number today and didn’t quite happen, but a 70 is still a good score and gets me right back where I want to be.”
McIlroy and Woods could be seeing plenty more of each other over the next two days as the course dries out and the cream rises to the top.
“I really enjoy it,” McIlroy said. “He’s good fun to be around and we get on well.
“I played well with him in the past and it was nice to be paired with him the last couple of days and it looks like we might get a game tomorrow.”
Revealing their good relationship, he added: “I told him on the last there that I was trying to hole the putt, so I didn’t have to play with him again tomorrow. So he’s got the pleasure of playing with me.”
McIlroy certain;y believes he has a chance of winning his second US Open in three years despite the challenges of the East Course at Merion that many feared would be overwhelmed by new technology
“It was you guys saying that the course was going to be scoreable so you must be very good golfers,” McIlroy said with a grin. “There was people saying you could shoot 63, 64, but that was never going to happen.
“If you don’t hit the fairways here, you’re not going to score. If you do hit the fairways, it’s still a big challenge from there.
“I really like it. You’re under pressure from that first tee shot and you got to put your ball in the fairway every hole, you’re under pressure there.
“And when you do, there’s some holes that you can take advantage of and there’s some holes that you just have to try and make a par and move on. So it’s a great test and it’s a test that I am enjoying it this week.”
Luke Donald set the target at level par when he added a 72 to his opening 68 before 2007 Walker Cup star Horschel, the recent winner of the New Orleans Classic, birdied the last for a 67 to lead by two shots on one under from Australia’s John Senden (70-71)
McIlroy certainly bounced back well from a tough finish to his weather-delayed opening round.
He still had seven holes to complete yesterday morning but stumbled through them in three over with bogeys at the 15th, 17th and 18th in damp, windy conditions.
After a short break he was far better in the afternoon as he mixed four birdies with four bogeys in warm sunshine.
Starting at the 11th, McIlroy fired a wedge to two feet to set up an opening birdie and then picked up another shot at the 12th.
“I didn’t finish very well this morning for the first round, so I wanted to get those shots back straight away and I was able to do that on 11 and 12,” McIlroy said. “And you sort of need to do that.
“Whenever the course presents an opportunity you sort of have to take it because there’s a lot of tough holes out here.”
He missed a chance from 15 feet at the short 13th and then had to hole a six footer just to bogey the 14th after a poor chip and an even poorer par putt.
Grinding pars at the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th left him one under for the round and in good position to attack the last 10 holes.
But while he played them in one over par, there were some moments of sheer brilliance from the world No 2.
After bad bogey at the first, where he bunkered a wedge, McIlroy holed a 30 footer for a two at the 203-yard third.
A poor drive deep into the right hand trees at the 628-yard fourth saw him hand that shot straight back but he dug deep through a tough stretch from there.
On the edge of the hazard in deep rough in two at the tough, 504-yard, par-four fifth, he chipped to six feet and holed the putt to save par.
A sensational approach to two feet at the eighth got him back to just two over for the tournament.
And yet while a bogey at the 219-yard ninth and a birdie miss from 10 feet at the 10th were disappointments, he knows he right up there with a chance.
Woods was also erratic in his 70 as he battled an injured left arm and a misbehaving putter to mix three birdies with three bogeys.
But he was still happy with his three over total, insisting: “I played well. I just made a couple of mistakes out there today, but I really played well.
“Maybe I could have gotten one or two more out of it, but it was a pretty good day.”
Donald also found Merion a challenge as he made five bogeys and two birdie twos in last nine holes to add a 72 to his opening 68 for a level par total.
“This is a tough course and it’s obviously showing that you don’t need a course to be ultra long to make it difficult,” Donald said. “I think Merion is holding its own, for sure.”