LAST month Phil Mickelson became the oldest winner of a major championship on the longest course in the history of golf’s four most important tournaments. That was remarkable. That Richard Bland has now become the oldest man to lead the US Open at the halfway stage is just getting silly. But silly wonderful, silly marvellous, silly terrific, definitely not silly stupid.
The 48-year-old Englishman sits atop of the leaderboard heading into the weekend alongside the American Russell Henley on 5-under-par 137. Louis Oosthuizen and Matthew Wolff share second on 4-under, with Jon Rahm and Bubba Watson in a tie for fifth on 3-under.
“I’m very proud,” Bland said, of the run of form that started with him breaking his European Tour win duck at last month’s British Masters in his 478th event. He didn’t really need to, but he then won more fans by coming out with a couple of great lines. “To lead a major is pretty special,” he said adding: “I did tie the lead at the Open in 2017. For a hole, so it’s nice to have it a bit longer than that.” Then, asked about his Birdies for Rhinos head cover, he explained: “There’s two things I can’t stand, three-putting and cruelty to animals.”
It’s a fantastic story, but can he hang on? The good news for him is that, in the last 25 years, 40 players have held or shared the halfway lead and 13 went on to claim the win. The bad news, of course, is that all 13 were ranked in the world’s top 30. Among the 27 who didn’t convert were the likes of Jason Gore, JL Lewis and Olin Browne; fellows living the dream, who then woke up.
Nonetheless, that trend suggests being in the heat of battle matters at the US Open and here’s further proof. What do Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson have in common (other, that is, than being American past champions of the tournament)? The answer is that they’re the only winners in the last quarter century to triumph from more than two strokes back of the lead at halfway. Yes, you did read that right: 23 of the last 25 US Open champions were no more than two blows back at this stage.
It’s a staggering pattern and perhaps needs some explaining. A key factor is the course conditioning which provides hard-to-hit fairways, gnarly rough (both off the fairways and around the greens), plus bone-hard greens that both are hard to hold and speedy to putt on. Scores can easily get away from a player and so the effect is rather as if the 156-man field was each given a tightrope to walk between the rooftops of two skyscrapers. Getting to the other side demands slow and deliberate progress; anyone falling behind and needing to press, in order to make up lost ground, is actually only increasing the probability of imminent disaster.
The stats, therefore, would argue Bland and Henley will struggle with the pressure. Louis Oosthuizen, even at 38, is older than the last ten winners and is also fighting a long-term habit of finishing second in majors (he’s done it five times while winning just the once). Matthew Wolff has burst from a wretched run of form (no top 20 since October), but he was the 54-hole leader in last year’s US Open.
Followers of the column will hopefully already be on the pre-tournament pick Jon Rahm (now 7/2) which leaves us with Bubba Watson to consider. The 42-year-old is a two-time Masters champion, of course, but he hasn’t finished top 20 at the US Open since 2009 and he has never kept a weekend score of 74+ off his US Open card. On the other hand, he is a past winner at Torrey Pines. All told, I’m happy with our position: Rahm is playing well.
What of those further down? Can anyone emulate Koepka and Simpson? Xander Schauffele is close, on 2-under, and I’ll add him at 15/2. He’s never finished outside the top six in the tournament and he’s got a solid weekend record. In fact, he’s always improved on his Friday night position.
We’ll add a flyer at a price that will allow us to chase the place as much as the win. South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout, currently level-par, has a really classy short game which could easily prove crucial over the next 36 holes. He’s also got a win at Valderrama, a narrow track with thick rough. The clincher is that his long game has been in great fettle this week. If he can maintain that whilst also retaining his usual scrambling and putting skills, he can provide us with some weekend fun at 90/1.
Already advised – Jon Rahm (10/1) and Marc Leishman (80/1)