ARDMORE, Pa. — One by one they changed colors, tiny numbers on the leaderboard that were partially red at dawn and almost completely black at dusk, until almost every under-par score had vanished at the 113th U.S. Open at Merion. Only two men were under par when the horn blew at 8:27 p.m. after a sun-splashed Friday, one of them familiar to many and the other familiar to almost no one.
Billy Horschel, a 26-year-old Floridian who was ranked 312th in the world at the end of last year, hit all 18 greens in regulation and shot 67 to get to 1 under for the tournament. Hours later, Phil Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open bridesmaid but never the bride, elected to finish his last hole in semi-darkness, rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt on 18 for his only birdie of the day and a 72 to also get to 1 under.
"It was a nice way to finish on the 18th," said Mickelson, who is coming off a runner-up finish in Memphis last week. "I fought hard all day. Let a lot of birdie opportunities slide early and in the middle of the round. I fought hard to stay in there and hit a lot of good quality shots, made a bunch of good pars."
Sixty-eight players had yet to finish their second rounds, and among those players on the first page of the leaderboard, about half will return to Merion at 7:15 a.m. Saturday to finish up round two. There are 22 players within four shots of the lead, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, each of whom shot even-par 70 to stay well within striking distance at 3 over par, just four off the lead.
Among those at even par, one back, were Luke Donald (72), Steve Stricker (69) and Justin Rose (69), plus two players with holes remaining. Ian Poulter was 1 under on his round and even par through 14 holes, and amateur Cheng-Tsung Pan, an All-American at Washington, was 2 under on his round and also even par.
Amateur Michael Kim, 19, was 2 under for his second round with seven holes remaining and part of a fivesome at 1 over par, two shots off the lead.
"I'm trying to keep a smile on my face and be happy with anything I do," said Horschel, who not only hit all 18 greens, he kept his white pants mud-free despite playing a total of 29 holes Friday, including 11 to finish his first round.
Horschel's happiness notwithstanding, the moment that best summed up the day was an angry Jason Dufner flinging his club in the water hazard on the fourth hole. Merion left several players confounded, discombobulated and steamed.
First-round leader Mickelson bogeyed the first hole and could never find any rhythm with the putter Friday, losing the lead with back-to-back bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes. He steadied himself with four pars before hitting his 240-yard approach shot to within 20 feet of the pin on 18, and making the putt.
"I wasn't expecting birdie there," he said. "It's a very difficult hole."
A handful of other prominent players were further back but hardly out of it.
Woods and McIlroy, who played in the same threesome, were among the 78 players who had to return at 7:15 a.m. to finish the first round, and each struggled, carding 73s only to bounce back with even-par 70s in round two.
"It's hard with the wind and the pin locations," said Woods, who played through pain in his left elbow and winced after a handful of shots. "They're really tough. They put them on a lot of — we knew they were going to be in the areas [they were in], but we didn't think they were going to be as severe as they are."
"It feels like you can shoot a 66 or a 67 out there," said McIlroy, who unlike Woods has yet to win anywhere this year. "But where these pins are, you know, it's not really possible, and then you shoot 70 and you move up a lot of spots."
Hunter Mahan and Charl Schwartzel were among four players at 2 over par, just three shots back, with a few holes left to play in their second rounds.
Friday was cooler than Thursday, with the cold air combining with the wet course and swirling winds to give Thursday's afternoon wave fits as they toured the course early Friday morning. Donald, the former No. 1 who had slept on the lead at 4 under through his first 13 holes Thursday, bogeyed 16 and 18 to end his round Friday, then made four straight bogeys en route to a second-round 72.
That was nothing compared to Adam Scott, who at 3 under for his first 11 holes was just a shot off Donald's lead as he went to bed Thursday. Scott, the third member of the group that also included Woods and McIlroy, went 5 over for the last seven holes of his first round, signed for a 72, then shot a second-round 75.
"I just lost my rhythm early this morning when it was a bit cold and windy," Scott said, "and just fought with it all day long and the putter kind of cooled off."
At least he didn't shoot himself completely out of it, as did pre-tournament favorites Jim Furyk (79, 16 over par) and Graeme McDowell (77, 13 over), playing in the same group. Zach Johnson, the third member of the threesome, also had a 77 to miss the cut at 11 over, and went on to speak of his "disdain" for the USGA.
Horschel has been a proven talent ever since he shot an opening-round 60 at the 2006 U.S. Amateur at Hazeltine National Golf Club, an 18-hole tournament and USGA record. But after a gilded career at Florida he initially faltered as a pro, in part due to a wrist injury that limited him to four PGA Tour starts in 2010.
After having to go back to the PGA Tour qualifying tournament every year since then, he has enjoyed a banner 2013, a season in which he tied for second at the Shell Houston Open, tied for third at the Valero Texas Open, tied for ninth at the RBC Heritage, and then got his first win at the Zurich Classic.
"I've acquired some patience," Horschel said. "Not as much as I wish I had. But I just think that the older I get, the more mature I get on the golf course, the more I understand that if I do have a bad stretch of holes, I don't hit the panic button right away."
With 36 holes remaining for Horschel and Mickelson, more for many of the others, and the golf course getting harder every day, there's still plenty of time to panic at Merion.