PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Phil Mickelson knew he could salvage his U.S. Open with a birdie barrage on the easier front nine at Pebble Beach.
It just happened a day later than he'd planned.
Rebounding from an opening-round 75, Mickelson stormed back by going five under for his first eight holes and shot 66 in Friday's overcast second round.
At one under for the tournament, he was two back of leader Graeme McDowell (68) and tied with two-time Open champion Ernie Els (68), 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa (71) and two-time AT&T Pro-Am winner Dustin Johnson (70).
"I knew I was playing well," Mickelson said. "I knew I was putting well, even though I putted terribly yesterday. I knew I was close."
Mickelson consulted with his putting coach, Dave Stockton, and found he was setting up "a little contorted," in Mickelson's words. He changed his address, and the small fix paid big dividends as Mickelson took only 25 putts Friday, a day after taking 32.
He one-putted the first six holes.
"The holes that I didn't birdie were pretty easy pars," Mickelson said.
McDowell, a 30-year-old from Northern Ireland who makes his home in Orlando, continued to counterpunch better than anyone, making six birdies en route to a three-under-par total through 36 holes.
"I was surprised to be under par at a U.S. Open golf course," he said. "We got nice conditions this morning. The greens were a little bit more receptive for us. The wind took probably 12 holes to work up, and it was nice to play the back nine flat calm."
Mickelson was coming off a dispiriting opening round in which he didn't make a birdie, but he made six of them against just one bogey Friday.
He birdied his second hole of the day, the 505-yard, par-4 second, after his approach shot nestled to within three feet of the pin.
He backed it up with a birdie from the fairway bunker on the third hole to get back to two over for the tournament and made an eight-foot birdie putt for his third red number in a row on the fourth hole.
After a par at the fifth, Mickelson got up and down from just in front of the green on the par-5 sixth hole to get back to even for the tournament. Suddenly a storyline that seemed unlikely 24 hours earlier, Mickelson finally getting his first Open victory and getting halfway to the single-season grand slam, was back in play.
As they say in Monterey, some days you're the sea otter, some days you're the clam.
Slow starts are not unheard of for the past 109 U.S. Open champions. Raymond Floyd opened with a 75 at the '86 Open at Shinnecock Hills, and Lucas Glover began his week with a double-bogey at Bethpage last year.
Tiger Woods had another largely forgettable round, but after going without a birdie in his opening round Thursday, he chipped in for his first red number on the par-4 11th, his second hole of the day.
He also birdied the par-5 14th and the par-3 seventh, but he gave it all back and then some with four bogeys.
"I feel good, I'm right there," said Woods, who has not won a tournament in the U.S. since the BMW Championship last fall. "As we know, the U.S. Open is only going to get tougher as the weekend goes. The golf course will dry out. I know they put some water on it last night, and that's probably the last drink [the greens and fairways] will get."
As usual, the golf course at times seemed to be winning this Open.
As Harrison Frazar tried to work out a stance for his third shot on the par-5 18th hole, his left leg in the sand and his right jutting out at a 90-degree angle, resting on the seawall, he looked like he was losing at Twister. Already nine over par, he failed to escape the sand.
Paul Casey, Zach Johnson and Ian Poulter combined to go 10 over on the diabolical par-5 14th hole, where the pin was tucked in a tiny shelf in the back-left corner with steep run-off areas behind and to the right of it.
Said Casey of his 8, "I played seven pretty good shots on that hole, and one poor one." And he was one of the leaders, having regrouped for a 73 that left him at even par overall and only three behind.
Alex Cejka (72), Brendon de Jonge (73) and Jerry Kelly (70) were also at even par. Among the top 12 players on the leaderboard, only Els and Mickelson have won a major.
Poulter also bounced back to shoot 73 and was one over, four back, with K.J. Choi (73) and Soren Kjeldsen (71).
Zach Johnson carded a 77 and made the cut on the number, as did 60-year-old Tom Watson (71).
The wind has yet to blow hard at Pebble this week, although it was sweater weather for most of Friday. McDowell has made 11 birdies so far this week, and no double-bogeys, but he admitted that with calamity around every corner, it's never out of mind.
Sometimes it's right ahead of you, as when McDowell's group was forced to wait on the ninth hole while Argentina's Rafa Echenique, playing in the threesome just ahead, put together an action-packed triple-bogey 7.
McDowell, the 37th-ranked player in the world, looked out into the Pacific and the crashing waves, taking in the breathtaking view as he waited.
"There's some pretty nasty stuff around the green there," he said of number nine. So far, at least, he's kept himself out of such predicaments, but after Mickelson's charge the course isn't the only thing he has to worry about.