SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — What started as an odd day at Baltusrol Golf Club ended as an exhilarating one.
There were pin-sheet and puddle controversies. There was an apology from the PGA of America. (Yes, another mea culpa in a major championship.) There was Phil Mickelson dropping three shots on his first hole (“Just horrific,” he said later), and the world’s most formidable golfer, Dustin Johnson, missing the cut — by seven. There was world No. 1 Jason Day reminding us in an eye-popping eight-hole stretch why he is world No. 1. And there was, in the soft light of an idyllic summer evening, Robert Streb — Robert Streb! — becoming the 27th player to shoot 63 in a major, giving him a share of the lead, at nine under, with Jimmy Walker at halftime of this 98th PGA Championship.
You might have seen Streb coming, but let’s be honest: No, you didn’t. Streb, 29, starred at Kansas State and won the 2015 McGladrey Classic, but he has missed nine cuts this season and hasn’t notched a single top 10.
An eight-birdie 63 on this course? This week? From Robert Streb? Where did that come from?
“I have no idea,” he said.
You might have seen Walker coming, but let’s be honest: No, you didn’t. He’s a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, but he hasn’t had a top-10 finish since March. His last win? Sixteen months ago, at the Valero Texas Open. Even Jimmy couldn’t have seen Jimmy coming. Walker took the first-round lead with a five-under 65, and when asked afterward how he’d size up his season, he used these words: “Real stale and stagnant.”
“Haven’t been making the 10- to 15-, 18-footers you need to make to start running up the leader board,” he added.
This week Walker has made virtually everything. On Friday he dropped a 26-footer for birdie on the par-3 12th, followed by a 38-footer at 13 for another bird. A kick-in birdie at 14 took him to five under on his round and 10 under for the championship, but a three-putt bogey at the last dropped him back to nine under.
He and Streb are two ahead of Day and Emiliano Grillo, a little-known 23-year-old from Argentina.
“If your ball was in the fairway you could do anything you wanted with it,” Walker said of the soft but not soaked greens and calm conditions enjoyed by the afternoon wave. The 70.64 scoring average in the second round was more than a stroke better than the Thursday average.
Among the players who took advantage of the favorable conditions was Day, who after double-bogeying the par-4 7th to drop to two over for his round, remembered he was Jason Day. He bounced back with birdies on seven of the next eight holes: at 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14 and 15.
Lurking at six under, in fifth place, is your Champion Golfer of the Year, Henrik Stenson, who continued to distinguish himself with a second consecutive 67. The Swede jump-started his round with an eagle 3 at the 18th, his ninth hole of the day. When asked about his weekend chances, Stenson said, “Confidence level is always going to go up when you manage to accomplish what I did at Troon. I can’t guarantee that it’s going to happen again, if I’m in a similar situation, but at least you’ve got the belief that you can do it.”
Patrick Reed, the fiery 25-year-old, showed signs of his former “top-five” self on Friday, hanging up a 65 to climb to five under. He’s tied for sixth with 2010 PGA champion Martin Kaymer.
Among the 86 players who made the two-over 142 cut were Mickelson and Ernie Els. World No. 4 Rory McIlroy bogeyed the 18th, which played the easiest through two days, to fall a shot short. None of the 20 club pros in the field will play the weekend.
Despite Streb’s historic round and Walker’s resurgent play, the second round on the leafy Lower course may be remembered as much for a series of wacky happenings as it will be for wondrous shot-making.
With more than an inch of rain falling overnight across central New Jersey and more rain on Friday morning, there was some question as to whether the second round should have begun at its scheduled starting time of 7 a.m. But begin it did, with pools in the bunkers and puddles in the fairways and at least a couple of players grousing about having to go out in such inclement conditions.
Half an hour after the first groups went off, play was halted for 40 minutes. The players were directed to stay put on the course, with some, including Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia, huddling together under makeshift shelters to stay dry. Kaymer, who went off at 7:50, thought play should haven’t started until 9. “I think the guys who played even now or earlier than me, I think that has a little bit of disadvantage,” he said.
But the weirdness already was under way.
The first players off the 10th tee had more than the just the rain working against them — they also had erroneous pin sheets in their back pockets. The sheets issued to Colt Knost, Joe Summerhays and Yuta Ikeda positioned the cup at the 10th on the left side of the green, but the hole actually had been mistakenly cut on the right side. In a statement to the media the PGA of America said the rules committee “did not notice the hole had been cut in the incorrect location until after each member of [Knost’s group] had hit his second shot to the green.” Officials decided to leave the hole in the incorrect location, and players were issued an amended pin sheet. When the wronged group finished its round, PGA official Kerry Haigh apologized to them.
Knost was less than pleased with the cockup. “PGA trying its hardest to trump the USGA,” he tweeted, a reference to the USGA’s mishandling of the DJ rules quandary at the U.S. Open last month.
Speaking of rules quandaries, the second round produced a doozy. Spieth raced out of the gate, making five birdies on the back nine to climb to four under par. After parring the first six holes on the front side, he blew his tee shot at the 7th onto a gravel cart path right of the fairway. The ball came to rest in a puddle, which was deemed casual water from which Spieth was entitled relief.
Spieth consulted with rules official Brad Gregory for 15 minutes, a conversation that at times became so convoluted that it felt like an Abbott and Costello routine. When Speith finally took relief on the path and with his left foot seemingly still touching the puddle, amateur rules mavens cried foul. (According to Rule 24-2, a golfer in Spieth’s situation must take “complete relief” or face a one-stroke penalty.)
“I never thought twice about it whatsoever,” said Spieth, who is six shots back of the leaders. “I don’t think there’s any problem with it. If there happens to be then that’s not on me. I literally asked every question I could ask, and I got every answer I could be to be content. That’s first and foremost what you are trying to do is obviously abide by the rules.”
(On the ensuing hole, Garcia, playing alongside Spieth, tugged his tee shot into the left rough, where it came to rest … under a golf cart.)
One player who won’t have to worry about any rules controversies this weekend is Johnson, who followed his shocking opening-round 77 with a listless 72. The world No. 2 and U.S. Open champion made just one birdie in the second round and signed for a two-day total of nine-over 149. (Raise your hand if you foresaw Johan Kok and Michael Block outplaying DJ at Baltusrol.)
Golf’s newest sensation, burly, bearded Andrew (Beef) Johnston, continued to thrill his Beef Brigade with more stellar play. The loveable Londoner went around the Lower course in one-under 69, including closing birdies on 17 and 18, to put him at one under heading into the weekend, when the galleries figure to get only more boisterous.
“I love it, every hole, man, I get so many nice comments,” Beef said of the welcome he has received. “The variation of people shouting, of, like, little kids, man, up to, like, grown men, grown women — it’s just great, man.”
So is leading a major after 36 holes.
“It’s really cool,” Walker said before slipping off for home to play with his kids. “You’re at the PGA Championship. You are at the top. It’s what you are here to do.”
Now he just needs to do it for two more days.