Rory McIlroy rides rocky road but stays in US Open hunt behind Åberg

<span>Rory McIlroy plays an iron off the 7th tee.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images</span>
Rory McIlroy plays an iron off the 7th tee.Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy remained in the frame for a drought-busting fifth major title after staring down multiple moments of crisis on Friday as the 124th playing of the US Open reached the halfway mark amid oppressive North Carolina heat.

The in-form Northern Irishman scored an eventful 72 after Thursday’s five-under-par 65 to lie two shots off the pace set by Sweden’s Ludvig Åberg, the 23-year-old Masters runner-up in his third career appearance at one of golf’s four bedrock tournaments.

McIlroy went out from the 10th tee at 7.29am amid pleasant 68F (20C) conditions alongside Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele, a marquee group of the world’s top three players. After bogeys on two of his first six holes, he faced catastrophe on the 17th when a birdie putt trailed all the way off the glassy domed green into the collection area. But the world No 3 managed to pitch in from 20 feet, fist-pumping to the roaring crowd and gaining confidence from there.

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Playing the sensible, conservative golf that modern US Open setups demand and deftly negotiating the diabolical Pinehurst No 2 greens, McIlroy made a series of heart-pounding par saves and picked up shots on the 12th and 13th before a late bogey that would leave him three off the pace and firmly in contention for a first major crown in nearly a decade.

“Obviously it didn’t go quite as well as yesterday, but I feel like the golf course played a little more difficult, even though we were off in the morning,” said McIlroy, whose last major win came at the 2014 US PGA when it was staged in August. “Some of the hole locations were definitely a little tougher. Sort of had to have your wits about you. I putted it off one green there on 17. “Overall I felt like I did a pretty good job at keeping some of the mistakes off the scorecard.

What is billed as professional golf’s most difficult test has lived up to the hype with only 16 players on course to break par through 36 holes. The already daunting greens across the 7,540-yard course played even firmer and faster on Friday as temperatures approached 100F (38C) and triggered extreme weather advisories throughout the grounds.

The field of 156 was trimmed down to the top 60 players with ties by dusk and it nearly did not include Scheffler, who arrived as the largest betting favorite at a major in 15 years but was undone by scattershot ball-striking and one missed opportunity after another on the turtle-back greens. The world No 1 failed to record a single birdie for the first time in 169 rounds, but just avoiding missing a cut for the first time in 22 months. “This golf course can be unpredictable at times, and maybe it got the better of me the last couple of days,” he said.

It wasn’t a whole lot smoother for Schauffele, who finally shed the title of best player to never win a major at last month’s US PGA Championship. The 30-year-old Californian used deft iron play to surge up the board with five birdies in a nine-hole stretch, but a couple of late bogeys dropped him into a pack of eight at one-under that included England’s Tyrrell Hatton.

Bryson DeChambeau, one of only a dozen players from the rebel LIV Golf Series in the field, made good on a pledge to trade his familiar bomb-and-gouge style for a more patient golf he described as “boring” – even if his wild ride of a second round (five birdies and four bogeys) was anything but. The 2020 champion finished with a one-under 69, leaving him on four under overall alongside Thomas Detry and Patrick Cantlay, who had shared the overnight lead with McIlroy.

But the surprise was Åberg, the first player to hold at least a share of the 36-hole lead on their US Open debut since TC Chen in 1985. France’s Matthieu Pavon looked on course to join him at the top of the leaderboard, but two late bogeys saw him slip back to share fifth with McIlroy and Tony Finau.

It has been 13 years since McIlroy, then 22, became the youngest US Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923, winning his first major title by eight shots while setting the mark for lowest 72-hole score in the tournament’s history at a 16-under-par 268. Oddly enough the low amateur at Congressional that year was Cantlay and they shared the stage at the trophy ceremony.

McIlroy has posted top‑10s in his past five US Open appearances since a third straight cut in 2018, each finish improving on the one before, including last year when he came in one shot behind Wyndham Clark at Los Angeles Country Club. He has credited what has been an incremental reversal of form to a “come-to-Jesus moment” in his approach to the USGA’s famously unsparing setups. Should the trendline continue and McIlroy lift the trophy on Sunday, the 13 years between US Open triumphs would break the existing record held by Hale Irwin, who bagged the 1979 and 1990 titles following his initial win in 1974.

Tiger Woods, competing in only his fourth event of the year, signed for a three-over 73 and missed the cut at seven-over. Others whose tournament ended after two rounds included world No 5 Viktor Hovland, Max Homa, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Phil Mickelson and former US Open champions Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and Justin Rose.

Francesco Molinari looked destined to join them, teeing off at the 18th on seven-over-par – but incredibly, the Italian hit a hole-in-one to make the cut in dramatic fashion.