PINEHURST, N.C. – Retief Goosen (search) is one of the most accomplished players in the game. Olin Browne and Jason Gore slipped into the U.S. Open almost unnoticed. Now, they have something in common — a share of the lead in a wide-open tournament at brutal, withering Pinehurst No. 2, a course that is providing every bit the "thorough examination" the USGA always promises at its national championship.
"If you get worried about the stage, you have a problem here because this particular stage will hammer you," Browne said Friday, after his 1-over 71 left him tied for the second-round lead at 2 under.
Browne, Gore (67) and Goosen (70) are hardly the only ones with a chance. Twenty-seven players entered the weekend within five shots of the lead. Among them are K.J. Choi (70) and Mark Hensby (68) at 1 under, Vijay Singh (70) and Sergio Garcia (69) at even par and Tiger Woods (search) (71) at 1 over.
Not so close were Ernie Els (7 over) and Phil Mickelson (search) (6 over), both of whom came closer to the cut line than the leaders.
Such is the nature of this tournament, being played on a crispy course with hard fairways, gnarled, nasty rough and humpbacked greens that don't roll like many others these guys play.
"Some of us struggle sometimes with how the Open is set up, from an equity standpoint," Browne said. "But it's our Open championship, and so I'm glad to be here."
Goosen seems to thrive under these conditions. The two-time champion, who won at baked-out Shinnecock Hills last year, made a passel of nice saves to shoot even par and further cement his reputation as a player who doesn't let tough courses get to him.
"It's not easy when you're out there, I must say," Goosen said. "I suppose once you've done it once, you sort of feel like you can do it again."
Gore has won before, but never at this level. A successful veteran of the Nationwide Tour, he made it back to his first Open since 1998 through qualifying and suddenly finds himself contending for the championship.
"I actually feel pretty comfortable," Gore said. "I'm surprising myself. I'm just trying to keep it simple and it's just golf, you know. That's what I'm trying to keep it as."
This is golf at its most difficult and unpleasant, and there were snapshots all over the course Friday to illustrate the frustration.
Woods, who claimed he was happy after his 71, left a par putt short on No. 9 and angrily scraped his putter along the green, scuffing the grass as he walked off.
Mickelson looked more like his old sad-sack self — slumped shoulders, that `why-me' grin — after missing no fewer than three putts of 5 feet or less en route to a 77, his worst U.S. Open score since 1994.
David Toms whacked his wedge to the ground in disgust, part of a day in which he took the lead at 4 under, then played his last two holes in 5 over to wind up four strokes off the lead.
Rocco Mediate turned his share of the first-round lead into a three-stroke deficit.
"It's just hard," he said. "You've just got to figure out a way to get in."
Browne, who shoot a 59 Monday in the second round of a qualifier in Maryland to earn a spot at Pinehurst, kept things together nicely considering his debacle at the par-3 sixth. He went from the front bunker to the back bunker, then past the pin and down the slope off the green. After a safe chip to 25 feet, he holed the putt for double bogey.
"I think everyone is going to confront a catastrophe out here somewhere, and it just happened to be my turn there," Browne said.
Offering a small dose of comic relief was Nick Jones, who stuck his second shot on No. 18 onto the clubhouse roof. He got a free drop and made a 7 to finish the back nine in 40 — still one stroke better than Mickelson.
"We had no idea the ball was going to fly like that," said Jones' caddie, Andrew Pfannkuche.
Mostly, though, this one was a grind — one in which a whopping 83 players finished within 10 strokes of the lead and earned the right to come back for the weekend and compete for the title.
It figures to be a grueling 36 holes. And it is still anybody's tournament.
"I think 36 pars might have an outside chance of winning and that's what I'm hoping for," Mickelson said.