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Len Ziehm On Golf

Top three stars aren’t needed to make Erin Hills’ Open a special event

ERIN, Wis. – Phil Mickelson doesn’t show up and defending champion Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day – the top three players in the Official World Golf Rankings – miss the 36-hole cut. What kind of U.S. Open is this anyway?

Actually, it’s been quite a good one in terms of competitiveness and the quality of golf demonstrated over the first two days at Erin Hills, a new venue for America’s premier championship.

As far as the competition goes, there’s a four-way tie at the top of the leaderboard midway through the 117th playing of the tournament with Americans Brian Harman and Brooks Koepka and English stars Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood setting the pace.

Another trio of players, including first-round leader Rickie Fowler, are one stroke back and five more — among them Japan star Hideki Matsuyama who posted a sizzling 65 on Friday – trailing by two.

The four co-leaders are at 7-under-par 137. Very rarely does a U.S. Open produce scoring that good.

“The condition of the course has more to do with the low scoring than anything,’’ said Harman. “The course is absolutely immaculate and the greens are some of the best I’ve ever putted on.’’

Harman’s run at the coveted title has a special twist going into the weekend rounds. He’s a left-handed golfer, and the Open is the only one of the four major championships that hasn’t produced a left-handed champion. That’s largely because the absent Mickelson has been second a record six times while posting wins in the Masters, British Open and PGA Championship.

“I forget that I’m left-handed because all I see is right-handers every day,’’ said Harman.

Though this is the first time he ever made a cut in the U.S. Open, Harman’s swing from the “opposite’’ side has worked well in the past in U.S. Golf Association events. He was the U.S. Junior champion in 2003 and played on two U.S. Walker Cup teams.

As a PGA Tour player he had a breakthrough win at the 2014 John Deere Classic and won the Wells Fargo Championship this year. Now his sights are set on a major – this one.

“My time is not unlimited here,’’ said Harman. “I want to take advantage of every opportunity I have.’’

And this is a good one, to be sure.

Of the other front-runners Casey had the most interesting day in the second round.

“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an eight on the card, but I’m a pretty happy man,’’ he said. The eight came as a triple bogey on No. 14, one of two holes set up at over 600 yards on the back nine. Casey recovered to shoot 71, bouncing back with five birdies in a row at one stretch after his mishap.

Fleetwood, who plays basically on the European PGA Tour, feels like he’s entering a new world.

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never played a U.S. Open, so it’s going to be great, a very cool experience,’’ he said.

Koepka felt his superior length was what put his at the top of the leaderboard.

“It’s not easy, by any means. It’s the U.S. Open,’’ he said. “But I played pretty well. I had a few errant shots, but I’ve only hit 7-iron – that’s the longest I’ve hit into any par-4.’’

Fowler shot 65 on Thursday, matching the record for the lowest score in relation to par in the history of the tournament. On Friday he watched playing partner Matsuyama post the same score while Fowler dropped out of the lead after making three straight bogeys on the back nine.

While Fowler tied for second in the U.S. Open in 2014 – a year in which he cracked the top five in all four major championships – he missed the cut four times in his eight appearances in the tournament including the last two years.

“I haven’t had the best showing the last couple years and it’s nice to get back up there,’’ he said. “This is definitely one of the harder tests we get on a yearly basis. This year, with the softer conditions the first two days, you would probably say the scores were lower than what you’re used to seeing – but it’s been fun.’’