Ardmore, Pa. — Tiger Woods was asked if he liked his chances in the 2013 U.S. Open.
Woods should like his chances, sitting just four strokes back after play in the second round was suspended on Friday. Woods posted a 73 in the first round, followed by a tough, grind-it-out even-par 70 in the second round. This is U.S. Open golf, something Woods knows quite well.
Rory McIlroy should like his odds just as much as Woods. Both of the world's two best players—both former U.S. Open champions, too—posted the same 36-hole score, shooting three-over par for the first two rounds.
Both carded 73 in the opening round before grinding out equal 70s in Round 2.
That's not where the similarities end after two days at Merion. McIlroy, too, thinks he has a good chance heading into the weekend. He was just a bit more elaborate about it.
"I'm very happy, McIlroy told reporters. "Right in there for the weekend—in a nice position going into the last two days."
Woods and McIlroy could be paired together for Saturday's third round as well—both were tied for 17th when play was suspended Friday night—making another dream pairing for the Merion fans, and a gallery nightmare for the Merion marshals.
At one point in their second round, paired with Masters champion Adam Scott as well, there were nearly 3,000 people waiting at a fairway crossing, just trying to get a glimpse of the group walking by. Of the 25,000 tickets sold to this year's championship, at least a third of those fans were following the marquee group.
For Woods and McIlroy to play as well as they did, in front of that many people, on a course this difficult, was simply fantastic.
And it certainly wasn't easy. Both players had to come back out at 7:15 a.m. on Friday to finish their first round, then ostensibly head right back to the tee to begin their second round a short while later.
Both gutted out even-par second rounds, Woods with three birdies and three bogeys to 12 pars, and McIlroy with four birdies and four bogeys to 10 pars.
There was an odd ebb and flow to their 25 holes together on Friday. Oddly, neither player birdied the same hole as the other in either round, despite combining for five birdies in Round 1 and seven in Round 2.
While they carded the exact same scores, they seemed to do it in such different ways.
McIlroy hit more fairways than Woods in the first round (12 to 10), but he hit just nine of 14 in the second round, really grinding his way from tee to green. While Woods seemed to have less trouble getting to the green, it was on the green that McIlroy was able to make up strokes, putting 56 times to 60 for Woods.
McIlroy is tied for ninth in putting this week, heading into play on Saturday. Woods is tied for 54th. What that means for the weekend can be seen two ways.
First, McIlroy has been putting well, so if he can get the rest of his game in line, he should have a fantastic shot at moving up the leaderboard. Second, Woods is playing better from tee to green, so if the putts start falling for Tiger over the weekend, he could see an advantage over McIlroy, and the field.
When asked what his approach will be on Saturday, Woods was candid.
"Just keep grinding," he told reporters. "You just don't ever know what the winning score is going to be.
"We have a long way to go, and these conditions aren't going to get any easier. They're going to get more difficult. As the fairway starts drying out, the ball is going to pick up mud, and you're going to get bad breaks."
All the pundits were wrong about Merion. Par is going to win this tournament, as the fairways and greens are only going to get faster as the course dries out. If Woods and McIlroy can focus on par after par on their cards, the rest of the field could easily back up to them, making the potential for a push on Sunday all the more likely for one.
The question is, which one? I had the chance to follow their group for more than 20 of their 25 holes on Friday, and I honestly couldn't tell you who played better. At times it was Woods, and at other times it was McIlroy. In fact, there were some holes where Rory would hit a better tee shot and Tiger a better approach, with the next hole being the exact opposite.
The two would make for an amazing match-play event on this wonderful course, that's for sure. But in this year's U.S. Open, with both in contention, it's hard to pick one to do any better than the other.
This is by no means a two-player race. Phil Mickelson, co-leader after his second round, doesn't think anyone is going to run away with this tournament. That benefits both Woods and McIlroy, perhaps more than anyone else.
Let's not forget, they both still have a lot of work to do, as they are four back from the current leaders. At this point, however, anyone would be crazy to count either player out.
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