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Richard Bland, Russell Henley Emerge From the Torrey Fog for the U.S. Open Lead

Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen still in the hunt with 36 holes to go.

In Southern California, it’s known as a marine layer. Everywhere else, people just call it fog. During the second round of the 121st U.S. Open, a murky sky hung over Torrey Pines Golf Course like an uninvited guest, lingering far longer than usual and producing a co-leader who hails from a land where overcast is built to last.

Englishman Richard Bland joined Russell Henley atop the leaderboard at 5-under 137, which amounts to heady territory for a 48-year-old European Tour soldier playing in this tournament for just the second time. Bland’s victory last month at the British Masters was his first big-league triumph in 478 career starts. He followed it up with a T3 in Denmark before embarking on one of his rare business trips to America, a place some people still consider the Land of Opportunity. (Scores)

If Paul Lawrie can come from 10 shots back with 18 holes to play and win a British Open (1999), golf’s crystal ball can yield a glass slipper of any size. “When I saw this course on Monday, I [realized] I can play around here,” Bland said after Friday’s 67. “I’ve been driving the ball well for five or six weeks now, which is the cornerstone if you’re going to put up a fight for a U.S. Open.”

We’ve gone five long years since a man of notable obscurity last claimed a major championship. Danny Willett’s win at the 2016 Masters came completely out of nowhere, a shocker framed largely by Jordan Spieth’s back-nine collapse. One might expect Smylie Kaufman to wilt under the Sunday heat, but the Golden Boy? This was probably Lee Westwood’s best chance to win a Big One, although you could hold an hour-long roundtable discussion on that subject.

Y.E. Yang, Lucas Glover, Michael Campbell, Todd Hamilton, Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis…. You can spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday theorizing about who will win the game’s most important gatherings, but there will always be weeks when a major champion comes straight from the valley of anonymity and walks away with both a life-changing title and a sheepish grin.

That doesn’t happen in the NBA or NFL.

Of course, nobody ever won a U.S. Open on a Friday, although some might suggest that Tiger Woods accomplished the feat in 2000. If Bland is still a longshot, his chances don’t get any shorter when one considers the history of Englishmen at America’s national championship. Half a century has come and gone since Tony Jacklin hoisted the trophy in 1970. For all the decorated Brits to tee it up at the USGA’s annual bogeyfest over the last five decades — Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie in particular — only Justin Rose (2013) has emerged victorious from the game’s most demanding test.

Faldo and Monty were seemingly born to win this tournament. Both hit fairways with their eyes closed, holed meaningful putts and plotted their way around vicious venues like experienced bank robbers. Neither could finish first on Father’s Day. Can a 48-year-old journeyman? Hey, it’s only halftime.

Henley remained steady en route to a 1-under 70, but it was a lead he should own by himself. A birdie at the par-3 8th (his 17th) got him to 6 under, but after holing everything within reason all afternoon, the three-time PGA Tour winner inexplicably three-putted from 20 feet at the par-5 9th. If Bland is a monumental unknown, Henley isn’t exactly a household name, so it doesn’t take a vivid imagination to envision someone making a major charge on Saturday.

Russell Henley

Russell Henley follows his shot from the 14th tee during the second round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

Especially if Mr. Marine Layer makes another extended appearance. The moist air has kept Torrey Pines’ greens from getting anything close to hostile. Spin is in, much to the USGA’s chagrin, so unless the bluecoats start parking the pins in some very unattainable places, there’s a decent chance someone could fire a 65 and wake up Sunday morning very much in the thick of things.

That said, there are just two major champions among the 13 guys under par: Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson. Oostie factored heavily at last month’s PGA Championship, but his moody putter has failed him repeatedly at the majors since he crushed the field at the 2010 British. Why would it stop tormenting him 11 years later?

Watson has an awful U.S. Open history — one top-five finish, eight missed cuts in 13 appearances — which might explain the lack of weekend confidence. “I could throw up on myself tomorrow,” he admitted after shooting a second-round 69. Pre-tournament favorite Jon Rahm, meanwhile, lurks two off the lead like an unfed Piranha. The big boy didn’t look all that sharp Friday and still turned in a 70, showing no ill effects from that positive COVID-19 test that cost him $1.7 million and the biggest victory of his career at the Memorial.

An unfed Piranha has never won a U.S. Open, but neither has a short-tempered Spaniard. Or a rank-and-file British tour pro, for that matter.