If Thursday offered a showcase of Rory McIlroy’s sharpest talents, then his second round of the Los Angeles Country Club was more of a show of willpower and steady progress in the face of creeping frustrations.
For so long it seemed like one of those rounds where his momentum would run away, but in the end he emerged in a hugely promising position at the US Open.
At eight under par, achieved via 67 shots and a searing nine, he clinched just two shots off the lead held by Rickie Fowler and set himself up for a crash heading into the weekend.
It lacked the fluidity and precision of its opening 65, but majors are used to taxing the mind, and it was reassuring to see how McIlroy scored well when the going got tough.
In that context, see how he bounced back after his first nine holes, played 10-18, during which he had three bogeys and a birdie. He failed where others managed to enjoy the northern course and moans and sighs soon became a feature of his work.
Rory McIlroy (pictured) suffered from inconsistency in his second round at the US Open
He clinched just two shots from the head held by Rickie Fowler
But that’s when he started grinding. Starting his back nine on the first, he entered the easier half of the course and his numbers burned red, with no less than six birdies in an inside 30, which included a brush with an ace at par- three ninths. It was quite the finale and lands the world No. 3 in another one of those scenarios where he is near a mountain top.
As always, caution is advised with McIlroy, as he has been here countless times in his nine-year wait for a fifth major. He acknowledged it after signing his card saying, “Nobody wants me to win another major more than me.” The desire is obviously there.
“I’ve tried and come close over the last nine years or whatever, and I keep coming back. I feel like I’ve shown a lot of resilience in my career, with a lot of ups and downs, and I keep coming back. And whether that means getting rewarded or getting punched in the gut or whatever, I’ll always come back.
His lap testifies to this fact, with the result being that he is third going into the third lap. The unknown is how Fowler will handle the pressure to lead, but through 36 holes he proved himself enough to meet the challenge.
His second round of 68 was inevitably short of the record heights he had reached on his first 62, although it should be noted that he achieved it in the most difficult conditions of the afternoon. To illustrate the point, his co-leader overnight, Xander Schauffele, had to fight his way to a par 70 which left him tied with McIlroy, one ahead of Harris English. Wyndham Clark holds second place with nine under after a 67.
Other big names in contention include Dustin Johnson, who recovered from a quadruple bogey in second to finish where he started, with six under, and Scottie Scheffler is five under, one clear of the champ. of the Cameron Smith Open.
However, birdies at 12, 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 opened a promising door for the 34-year-old on Friday
Jordan Spieth, Max Homa, Justin Thomas and Phil Mickelson all sat outside the two-man cut line, while Jon Rahm slipped into the weekend on the count.
For McIlroy, a strong week has come on the back of the political chaos of the past. There were strong questions about how he would be affected, having spent so much time in those rows, but his golf has been by far his best at the majors this year.
He was lucky in the draw for his second round, given that he was in the morning wave on Friday, when overcast weather again bit the sloping fairways and helped score lows.
The US Golf Association, which usually serves a brutal course, tried to control the numbers a little more by sinking a few pins and lengthening the course by about 200 yards, and yet the morning birdie count showed that it there were plenty of opportunities still there. Certainly more than there was for the last starters, how much the sun had brought speed back to the surfaces.
Initially, McIlroy, starting from 10th, struggled to capitalize and the exasperation was clear on his face, with bogeys at 11, 13 and 17, before another at fourth when he played into the barranca guarding par. three. At that moment, he slammed his iron against the tee box in anger.
It was a slow day for Matt Fitzpatrick, but with the notable improvement of an ace in the 15th
He may have overshot, but birdies at 12, 1, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 drastically changed the outlook for his round, which featured another solid display of play from the tee, but slightly more approaches looser than he showed in his opening 65. That first-round score was built by hitting 16 of 18 greens in regulation time, but that drifted to 13 on Friday.
Interestingly, he later detailed how he started to revisit his 2014 Open win and in doing so he came across an observation that he used more irons and three woods from the tee in his win. As such, he tried something similar here and it worked like a charm.
It was also a slow day for Matt Fitzpatrick, but with the notable uplift of an ace on the 15th from 115 yards. The defending champion was one out, while 2013 winner Justin Rose went out on four.
Meanwhile, Open organizers have confirmed that Tiger Woods will not play in Hoylake next month as he continues his recovery from surgery in April.