San Diego – If Thursday’s opening round was a day for unknowns, Friday was a day for the recently healed.
What with Rocco Mediate, Davis Love III and, oh yeah, that guy named Tiger Woods lurking near the top of the leader board, you would think Lazarus had paid Torrey Pines a visit for the 2008 U.S. Open.
Got a bad back, injured ankle or surgically repaired knee?
The South Course might be the perfect therapeutic remedy. A supposedly rusty Tiger Woods, who had not played competitively since his arthroscopic knee surgery two days after the Masters, rediscovered his rhythm 27 holes into the championship.
Following a ho-hum 1-over 72 in the first round, Woods responded with a rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing final nine holes Friday to card a 3-under-par 68 and moved within a stroke of the 36-hole lead held by Australia’s Stuart Appleby (70—139).
Mediate (71) and Sweden’s Robert Karlsson (70) are also a stroke back at 140, with four others two behind: Love (69), England’s Lee Westwood (71), D.J. Trahan (69) and Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, whose 66 was the championship’s low round.
That leaves a total of eight players in red figures entering the weekend.
After going 27 holes without a lot of fireworks, the large throng of fans who followed the “super” grouping of the world’s top-three-ranked players – Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott – finally got what they have wanted since Thursday morning’s highly anticipated start. Woods had a tidy 5-under 30 over his last nine holes (they started at No. 10), while Mickelson followed his 71 with a 75 and Scott posted 73. Both are seven strokes off the lead at 146.
“I just wanted to get back to even par for the tournament,” said Woods, a 13-time major winner, including two U.S. Open titles in 2000 and ’02. “My mindset was I’m playing well enough to do it … and all of a sudden [the putts] started flying in from everywhere.”
Woods, indeed, holed medium-length birdie putts at one, two, four and five and finished it off with a tap-in birdie at the par-5 ninth.
Thursday’s first-round co-leaders, Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks, went dashing in an opposite direction. Streelman carded a 6-over 77 (145) and Hicks posted an 80 for a two-round total of 148, but the two unheralded players will play the weekend.
The cut – low 60 and ties and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead – came at 7-over 149 (80 competitors), thanks to a 25-foot birdie putt by Appleby at the par-5 18th that sent 11 players home early, including 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson.
Another golfer not qualifying for the last two rounds was defending champion Angel Cabrera (12-over 154). Last year, Cabrera birdied his final hole on Friday to knock out 19 players, including Mickelson. The last defending champion to miss the cut was Michael Campbell in 2006 at Winged Foot.
Major championships have never been a good match for the 37-year-old Appleby, who owns just one top 10 and seven missed cuts in 11 previous U.S. Open starts. In 45 major starts, he has only four top-10s, including a tie for second at the 2002 British Open and a tie for fourth in the 2000 PGA. He’s also missed the cut in 18 of those appearances.
“Majors are not a comfort zone,” said Appleby. “They’re not supposed to be comfortable. Do I think I am more comfortable? Yeah, I guess I might be.”
Mediate, who has battled back problems for more than a decade, said he feels fine and is thrilled to be in position to win a first major. He got to four under after four holes, but gave back a couple of shots en route to the clubhouse. A two-putt birdie at 18 gave him a nice vibe.
“I feel absolutely perfect,” said the 45-year-old from Naples, Fla. “Everyone says I’m playing pretty good in a U.S. Open, how can I be angry? [But] it will be insane over the next few days.”
Mediate has been in this position before at the Open. He led after round one in 2005 and finished tied for sixth. He also was third entering the final round in 2001 and wound up fourth. Those remain his only two top-10s in this championship.
“This is the best,” said Mediate of the setup for this Open. “Nothing is wrong. They’re doing a great job. I think most of the guys will say the same thing.”
Like Mediate, Love has dealt with physical issues over the years, the latest being a torn tendon in his left ankle suffered while playing golf in September at home in Sea Island, Ga. He spent the offseason in rehab, which cost him World Ranking points (he is now ranked 146th) and the opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and a full exemption into the U.S. Open.
So the 44-year-old Love did what he had to do to play Torrey Pines – endure 36-hole qualifying for the first time since the late 1980s.
“I know the year (1988) my daughter was born I did have to qualify [for the U.S. Open] … and she just turned 20,” said Love. “I wish the Masters had 36-hole qualifying because I think I could have made it through.”
While missing the Masters was disappointing, Love took the setback in stride.
“A lot of people that week said it was a shame,” said Love, the 1997 PGA champion. “I said, you know what, guys get hurt and don’t get to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs and they get hurt and don’t get to play in the NBA finals or the World Series. So I have looked at it that way.”
Love’s major experience and patience seems to be paying off at Torrey Pines. He made a clutch par save at the first hole to keep the good feelings from Thursday’s 72, which included several par saves.
“I heard [ESPN/NBC commentator] Roger Maltbie during the telecast yesterday morning-when somebody hit it in the rough and hit a wedge out, and hit a wedge on the green and made a putt-go that’s a U.S. Open par,” said Love. “And I’ve been doing that. I’ve been living that the last two days. I think I am putting well enough to do that.”
The 6' 5", 38-year-old Karlsson might not be a household name in the U.S. because he plays primarily on the European Tour, but he is second on the 2008 Order of Merit behind Miguel Angel Jimenez. He has finished no worse than third in his last four starts, including a second at the Celtic Manor Wales Open two weeks ago.
But with a U.S. Open record of three missed cuts and a T45 (2002 at Bethpage), his position on the leader board is a bit surprising. Then again, he did tie for eighth at the Masters.
“The whole game has been in good shape,” said Karlsson. “I’ve been driving better than I’ve done before. Obviously, I’m really, really pleased.”
Appleby, meanwhile, will sleep on his precarious lead, knowing just who lurks behind him. In fact, as he was wrapping up his interview session in the Media Center, Woods arrived and Appleby knew it was time to yield the floor to the No. 1-ranked player.
“You’re all finished right?” Appleby playfully asked. “He wants to go play golf, we want to go play golf. And I’ll be throwing a club towards his sore right knee…It would be an accident, of course.”
Considering the situation, maybe Appleby should find an ailment, too.
David Shefter is a USGA staff writer in New Media. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.