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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – The toughest test in golf met one tough player Saturday at the U.S. Open.
Jason Day had every reason to withdraw when he collapsed on the final hole of his second round with a nasty bout of vertigo. He gave it his best shot under the stiffest conditions yet at Chambers Bay. The vertigo returned on the back nine, along with nausea. When he turned his head toward the target, he had to wait for his eyes to stop dancing before he could swing. He thought about quitting three times.
And it was worth it.
With three birdies on the last four holes, Day staggered off the course with a 2-under 68 and his name atop the leaderboard. He was part of a four-way tie with Masters champion Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Branden Grace of South Africa.
One day after his collapse, Day was standing taller than ever.
"That was the greatest round I've ever watched," said Colin Swatton, his caddie and longtime coach who whispered words of encouragement along the hilly terrain of Chambers Bay. "I said, 'You've got the heart of a lion. You get to show the world today you get to be the greatest you can be and look, let's do it.' And he just put his head down and kept walking, one foot in front of the other. It was pretty impressive."
And now he gets to play in the final group of a major for the first time.
All it took was a performance that brought to mind Ken Venturi winning the U.S. Open at Congressional in 1964 with a 36-hole final while suffering from heat exhaustion and severe dehydration, and Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 with a shattered left leg.
Day still has one day to go and a course that is getting faster and scarier by the day. And he has plenty of company.
Spieth had four three-putts, missed birdie chances inside 12 feet on the last three holes and still wound up in a tie for the lead with a 71 as he tries to become only the fourth player since 1960 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. The others were Woods (2002), Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Arnold Palmer (1960).
"I didn't have my best stuff today but still tied for the lead, and I've had my best stuff at times this week, and I'm pretty sure I know where it is and how to get it tomorrow and get ready to go," Spieth said.
Johnson gets a fourth shot at his first major. He also wasted good birdie chances with his power — a tee shot that landed on the front of the green at the 372-yard 16th hole (three-putt par) and a big drive on the par-5 18th. He hit 3-iron into a bunker and made par for a 70.
Johnson also was in position to win the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and the 2011 British Open.
"I've been in the situation a few times, so I know how to handle myself," he said. "I know what it takes to get it done. And tomorrow I just need to go out there and focus one shot at a time. And we'll see what happens."
Grace overcame a rough patch in the middle of his round — three bogeys in five holes — and shot a 70. The leaders were at 4-under 206.
Day chose not to speak to the media out of sheer exhaustion. He offered a few comments to a USGA official, and then headed to his motor home to lie down.
"I didn't feel that great coming out early," said Day, who dropped two shots in his opening four holes to fall as many as seven shots behind at one point. "I felt pretty groggy on the front nine just from the drugs that I had in my system, then kind of flushed that out on the back nine. The vertigo came back a little bit on the 13th tee box, and then felt nauseous all day. I started shaking on 16 tee box and then just tried to get it in, really. Just wanted to get it in."
He said it was worse than the vertigo he suffered last year at Firestone that caused him to withdraw. This time, he kept playing.
"I think the goal was just to go through today and see how it goes," he said.
For everyone else, it was a matter of hanging on.
Spieth holed a pair of 35-foot birdie putts early and stretched his lead to three shots until he gave them back with a pair of three-putts, slapping his knee at the miscues.
"Just need to limit the mistakes tomorrow," he said.
Johnson built a two-shot lead early on the back nine, only to give it back with a double bogey on the 13th hole with a 7-iron into the bunker and three putts. It was his only bad swing of the day. Johnson hit all 14 fairways.
Louis Oosthuizen, meanwhile, set himself up for a shot at U.S. Open history. No one since World War II has ever shot 77 in the first round of the U.S. Open and gone on to win. Oosthuizen was part of that horror show with Tiger Woods (80) and Rickie Fowler (81) in the opening round. He figured he would be watching the weekend at his home in Florida. Instead, he shot 66 to make the cut, and the South African shot another 66 on Saturday and was at 1-under 209.
Oosthuizen was joined by Cameron Smith of Australia (69), Shane Lowry of Ireland (70) and J.B. Holmes (71). No one else was under par, through 14 players were separated by five shots going into Sunday.