Padraig Harrington showed immense courage and determination to battle dismal weather and one of the hardest courses in US Open history to emerge as the main challenger to Tiger Woods after the second round of the 102nd Championship at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, New York.
The Irishman, second in last year’s Volvo Order of Merit, picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Woods who had set the clubhouse target of five under par 135 earlier in the day. Undaunted by the sight of most of the field tossing away shot after shot in the brutal conditions, Harrington gritted his teeth and posted a fantastic 68 for a two under par total of 138 and second place outright.
For long spells it looked like no-one would finish under par apart from Woods, but Harrington set up an intriguing final Saturday pairing with a gutsy performance in the worst of the rain which lashed the 7214 yard Black Course, the longest venue in US Open Championship history.
Having started the day on the tenth hole at level par, a bogey there and a birdie at the short 14th saw Harrington reach the turn in level par. Turning for home, the 30 year old Dubliner secured three par figures before making his forward move.
A superb pitch from deep rough to the left of the long fourth hole left him an eight footer for birdie which he rolled in to move into red figures overall, before he moved to two under par at the sixth after a majestic approach shot finished a mere three feet from the hole.
Harrington’s courage surfaced at the seventh and eighth holes, in sand at the former and in the greenside rough at the latter, but on both occasions he managed a pitch and putt to save par and a regulation par four at the last earned deserved cheers from the galleries around the ninth green.
Also well in contention was Sergio Garcia, who could not quite reproduce the fireworks of his opening 68, the Spaniard having to settle for a 74 and a two over par total of 142, which gave him a share of third place going into the third round.
"It was very tough out there," said Garcia. "It is hard enough to hit five or six irons into the greens but because of the conditions you are often hitting in two irons so you can imagine how difficult that is. But I am still in there and if I can keep going over the weekend, I have a chance."
The man everyone has to catch however is Woods, the 26 year old American looking for the second leg of the Grand Slam after having won the Masters Tournament at Augusta National in April. The World Number One gave himself the perfect opportunity to do just that with a stunning 68 to add to his opening 67, a round which saw Woods utilise all his ability, strength and mental toughness.
Woods, starting his second round at the first hole, began with all guns blazing with birdies at three of the first four to open up a four shot lead on the field.
It rekindled memories of the 100th US Open Championship at Pebble Beach two years ago when Woods stretched away from the field to win by a record 15 shots. But Bethpage proved to be a stiffer examination and Woods bogeyed the eighth and tenth to fall back closer to the pack.
Showing admirable concentration, Woods failed to shed another shot in the tough closing stages, although he had to use his powers of recovery at both the 15th and 17th to make par after missing the green with his approach shot, very nearly pitching in for birdie at the latter to the delight of the huge galleries who braved the downpours to turn out in their thousands.
Once again however, the World Number One saved the best for last and, just as in the first round, rolled in a 12 footer for birdie on the last to stamp his authority on the tournament.
Aside from Harrington and Garcia, the best finishing position posted by a European Tour Member came from Sweden’s Niclas Fasth, runner-up in last year’s Open Championship at Royal Lytham, who again showed his liking for Major tournament golf with a second consecutive 72 for a four over par total of 144.
Elsewhere, six time Major winner Nick Faldo battled bravely to a 76 after double bogeying his opening hole for a six over par aggregate of 146, two behind Fasth, a total matched by Angel Cabrera (73), Paul Lawrie (73) and Jean Van de Velde (75).
“It was just an unbelievable day out there,” said Faldo. “We were out for five hours 20 minutes and I’m just whacked. It is just a day to do as best as you can, take what score you can and then move on to the next hole.
“The course is not unfair, it is just brutally long. They (the USGA) took the course to the max but then they have had bad weather on top of that which has made it incredibly difficult. But what can you do, you just keep trying but at times you need to be superhuman, and there is only one player like that in the field.”
Other European Tour Members to book their place in the final two rounds were Ernie Els, Tom Gillis, Robert Karlsson and Peter Lonard and (all 147), Darren Clarke, Bernhard Langer, Thomas Levet, Greg Norman and Jose Maria Olazabal (all 148), and Thomas Bjorn, John Daly, Jeev Milkha Singh and Vijay Singh (all 150). It meant 20 of the 29 European Tour Members progressed to the final two rounds.
However one player to miss out was defending champion Retief Goosen. The 2001 Volvo Order of Merit winner struggled along with the majority of the field and rounds of 79-75 for a 14 over par total of 154 saw the South African pack his bags for home.
Other European Tour Members to miss the cut were Colin Montgomerie and Peter O'Malley (both 151), Per Ulrik Johansson (152), Jose Coceres (153), Paul McGinley (154), Michael Campbell (155), Adam Scott (157) and David Howell (159).