Phil Mickelson heads into the weekend of the PGA Championship with a share of the lead with Louis Oosthuizen as three of the world’s top four players missed the cut at Kiawah Island.
Mickelson, who has played in 29 of the 103 editions of the tournament, defied his senior status and an Ocean Course being widely described as one of the toughest courses on the major rota to birdie five of his last eight holes in a 69 that set the early clubhouse target at five under par.
Oosthuizen looked primed to eclipse that until he missed out on the first bogey-free round of the week at the last, while two-time winner Brooks Koepka is just one shot behind at the halfway stage and made two eagles in five holes either side of the turn.
Rory McIlroy looked more like the player that won the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this month as he recovered from his opening 75 to get back to level par, only to bogey the last three holes to drop back to three over, but world No 1 Dustin Johnson, No 2 Justin Thomas and No 4 Xander Schauffele will all have the weekend off.
Mickelson was the star of the show in the early wave, and after dropping three shots in an erratic back-nine 38, he revived his hopes of landing a second PGA title with a sublime performance over the second half of his round, a charge ignited by a birdie at the second which he followed with another at the fourth after a superb long-range second to three feet.
The five-time major champion picked up three shots in four holes from the fourth, and he provided further delight for his army of fans around the ninth green, rolling in his sixth birdie putt of the day from just outside 20 feet to close on five under par, and the left-hander was the outright leader moments later when Branden Grace found water at the 17th.
With Mickelson able to put his feet up for the afternoon, he was surpassed at the top of the leaderboard by Oosthuizen when the sweet-swinging South African rattled in a 12-footer for his fifth birdie at the 12th to get to six under, and he was soon joined by Koepka as he drained big putts for eagles at seven and at 11 and added a birdie at 12.
But Koepka followed the trend of the majority of the field down the fearsome closing stretch and dropped shots at the 15th and 17th, while Oosthuizen’s hopes of keeping a clean card were dashed by a pulled approach to the last, not that he was complaining about a round of 68.
“I drove it as good as I can drive it, and ball-striking was pretty good with the irons,” said Oosthuizen, who has finished runner-up in all four majors since his Open victory 11 years ago. “With really windy conditions, you need that ball-striking to be on song. I think I hit 14 or 13 greens around this golf course, so in today’s conditions, that’s pretty good.
“I don’t know where I will be tomorrow, but I’ll be a little nervous. But I know that, and I know how to deal with it or know what I have to do. I am definitely more comfortable playing in majors now than before. Hitting it well and knowing your game is there, it makes it a little less stress, but you still need to hit the shots and play in the moment and play well.”
Koepka, still looking uncomfortable when lining up his putts due to his surgically-repaired knee giving him a little trouble, pulled off a great par save at the final hole to get round in 71, with Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama belying his lack of competitive golf since his Augusta triumph to match Oosthuizen’s 68.
The Japanese star propelled himself 38 places up the leaderboard with his six-birdie round, although his second bogey of the day at the last saw him drop back into a tie for fourth with Grace and Christiaan Bezuidenhout – the third South African in the top five.
Grace led for much of the second morning until his errant tee shot at the 17th led to a double-bogey, and he dropped another shot at the last to return a 71, while three-time European Tour winner Bezuidenhout returned an impressive 70 featuring an eagle at the seventh, one birdie, one bogey and 15 hard-fought pars.
Paul Casey’s quest for an elusive maiden major at the age of 43 remained in good shape as he completed back-to-back 71s to get to two under along with former US Open champion Gary Woodland and first-round leader Corey Conners, while Bryson DeChambeau bogeyed two of the last five holes to slip five strokes off the pace.
McIlroy began the day knowing he needed to cut out the careless errors to ensure making the cut, and after a mixed start with a birdie at the first offset by a bogey at the second, he settled into a nice rhythm from tee to green and set up a series of good chances to make the back-nine less stressful.
His putting did not match the consistency of his long game, but he did get putts to drop at the sixth, ninth and 11th to haul himself back to level par for the week, but he made a mess of the 16th and carded his fifth bogey in eight par-fives over the first two days.
And after a bogey, bogey finish took him back to three over, he vented his frustration at his “silly mistakes” on the long holes that have hampered his bid for a first major victory since 2014.
“I played well, but I just didn’t get a lot out of the round,” said the 32-year-old. “I sort of kept it together, and then just let it go there the last three holes. I haven’t played the par-fives well this week. That’s been the big thing. If I’d have played those better, I’d have been right up there, but making five bogeys on the par-fives is not going to get it done.
“I hit the ball much better and I drove the ball much better, so if I can keep doing that and keep the silly mistakes off the card, hopefully I can get out early on Saturday when there’s not as much wind, and try to post a good one.”
Johnson’s huge eagle putt three holes from home was not enough to avoid becoming the first world No 1 to miss the cut in the first two majors of the year since Greg Norman in 1997, while Thomas birdied 17 and grazed the hole with his putt for a three at the last to miss out by one – the world’s top two players both finishing on six over par.