PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland (-9) and Justin Rose (-7) may be out in front of the field at the 2019 U.S. Open after two rounds, but they are not the two golfers around whom the tournament revolves. They are not the two golfers who have the ability to put their thumbs on the scales and tilt the whole thing in their direction.

That honor instead belongs to Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy, a duo that owns eight majors between them. Two of the biggest alphas (maybe the two biggest alphas) in the sport today are the X-factors on this board at the midway point and the pair that other players will be side-eyeing come Saturday afternoon.

Koepka got in the house at 4-under 138 and is in premium position just beyond the leaders. He’s been hitting it like the boss he is this week, but the putts haven’t fallen. Lids don’t stay on cups forever for the great ones, and the thing might look like a hula hoop come the weekend for Koepka.

McIlroy’s performance on Friday was less steady but just as effective. He shot a 69 following his Thursday 68, but it got hairy for a bit. McIlroy went bogey-double bogey on the 13th and 14th holes to ruin what had been a perfect round to that point. He bounced back hard with birdies on Nos. 15 and 16 and narrowly missed one on No. 17 as well. He was given the eject button, but he refused to mash it. That’s partially how major championships are won.

I was dubious about either golfer winning coming into this week. I thought Pebble Beach’s lack of length would neutralize Koepka’s greatest strength. McIlroy has missed three straight cuts at U.S. Opens. Both have been patient this week, though, realizing that once the weekend hits and the golf starts moving faster than many would like for it to move, they have the experience and the ability to hit pause and play their games.

Koepka and McIlroy are different as people but quite alike as players. On Tuesday night at a sort-of champions dinner West set up by the USGA where all the past winners of this event held court for an evening, they and their significant others (along with Jordan Spieth and his) shut the party down. That may have been a bit of foreshadowing, too; as it stands right now, we’re 18 holes and two strong Saturday rounds away from those two doing the exact same thing on the course come Sunday afternoon.

Here are a few other thoughts on Round 2 at Pebble.

1. I don’t believe in Justin Rose: Is he a great championship golfer and a worthy former major winner? Yes. Is he having an unreal four-year run all over the world? Yes. But in this particular week, I don’t believe he can sustain the level of play he’s currently showing because of the way he’s put it together. Rose is top five in the field in both strokes gained around the greens and strokes gained with his putter. He’s not hitting nearly enough fairways and greens, and unless that gets righted come the weekend, his luck will fade on Saturday and Sunday, and he’ll have a pair of 75s waiting for him.

2. I do believe in Gary Woodland (sort of): He’s a ball-striker of the highest order, and while he too has been carried by a lot of made putts, he’s at least hitting it (a lot) better than the Englishman. The interesting part here is that Woodland has never finished top 20 at a U.S. Open. While his game is far better than it’s ever been, I’m dubious that the list of Pebble champs is going to read Nicklaus-Watson-Woods-Kite-McDowell-Woodland. This place seems to weed out all-timers from simply good players, and I’m not positive Woodland can stand in that fire over the final 36.

3. Graeme McDowell makes a run: The other Ulsterman — and 2010 champion here — shot 70 in Round 2 to back up his 69 in Round 1. At 3 under, he’s just outside the top 10 and beating playing partner Dustin Johnson (just like he did in 2010). All of this despite the fact that he hasn’t made a cut at a major since the middle of 2016 and D.J. has finished second in the last two major championships. Golf is the best. Also, any major in which McDowell is involved is also the best. “We were joking when [Scott] Piercy was 5 under after 6 [on Thursday] that the USGA radios were going off saying, ‘Turn the water off now, you know, enough of this,'” said McDowell this week.

4. Rickie Fowler context: The unintended consequence of Fowler, who shot 77 on Friday, becoming a marketing superstar is that we (maybe unintentionally) think of him as somebody who should win more than he does, more than he should and more than anybody should. Because the marketing chasm between superstars and regular players is far wider than the skill chasm, we get frustrated when those superstars don’t win at the same rate they market. It’s just a thing I was thinking, and of course, it doesn’t excuse shooting 77 a day after shooting 66.

5. Koepka’s corner: Another thing I thought on Friday is that Koepka has painted himself into a corner with some of his pre-tournament statements. Look, golf is always going to come back and bite you in the ass, and Koepka has lost the freedom of movement to extricate himself when it does. Because he’s essentially said that golf is easy for him in recent years, when it gets hard, then what is he going to say? I was thinking about this as he whipped his club around after a poor shot on the back nine on the course on Friday en route to a 69. Wait a minute, I thought it was other guys who whipped their clubs and got angry, not you.

6. Course update: It looks right now like it’s going to play the same or maybe slightly harder each day, which is absolutely perfect. After the field averaged 72.7 strokes on Thursday; it averaged 72.6 on Friday. “They got it right where they want it,” said Tiger Woods. “It’s just a matter of how much will it dry out from morning to afternoon. The fairways were a bit slow and soft. I don’t think they put mowers on them this morning. And the short areas, the run-ups, man, they’re firm. So if they get the greens anywhere like that, it will be a hell of a test.”

7. Louis Oosthuizen: Is this a list you want to be on or don’t want to be on? I’m torn. Oosthuizen is 5 under and three back. He also had the psycho scorecard of the week on Friday.


Also, this is a thing that could happen.

8. Phil’s world: It felt like Phil Mickelson shot both 75 and 65 today, somehow. He made six (!) birdies to go with four bogeys — par is actually irrelevant in his world — and for a while it seemed like he was going to do the impossible and really insert himself into this tournament on the weekend. Still, the fight all these years later is valiant.

“Enjoyed playing with Phil the last couple of days,” said McDowell. “I kind of feel like it was really inspiring to watch Phil out there at 49 years old on Sunday being as gritty and determined and competitive as I’ve maybe ever seen him. That’s really cool to see. And his game is definitely pretty close and right where he needs to be. That was really awesome to play with him.”

9. Who wins, what’s the score? With this leaderboard going into the weekend, my new pick is Koepka (my original pick was D.J.). He’s hitting the ball so well right now but doesn’t have the score to prove it. He’s first in approach shots and 117th in putting. “I hit some good putts, some didn’t go in, struck it beautifully,” he said. “And if I strike it like I did today and hole a few more putts, I should be just fine.”

As for the winning number, this year’s leader — Gary Woodland — is at 133 through two rounds. That’s the lowest score after 36 holes in Pebble Beach U.S. Open history (besting Tiger Woods’ 134 in 2000). Here’s how the others have gone. While I don’t think 12-under 272 will take it, it will likely be closer to that number than it will be to the 280 I originally thought.

Year 36-hole leader Winning score