19 June 2021: The value of persistence is hard to quantify. Just two years ago, Richard Bland had surrendered his card on the European Tour. Age was not his best friend, and some decisions loomed. But in his mind, he wasn’t ready yet to groom his tails for the Champions Tour. So he made an unlikely choice, willing himself to duke it out with men that weren’t born when he turned pro. Bland went to the Challenge Tour in Europe, made 15 of 19 cuts and worked his way back to the main circuit. Just weeks after clinching his maiden victory, Bland is atop the US Open leaderboard, spicing up the tournament with an unlikely adventure.
As he stood at the 18th tee, visualising his drive, Akshay Bhatia was aware that he needed a birdie to survive the knife. After a perfect drive to the centre of the fairway, his second bounced off the green, sliding into the thick fringe. The left-handed golfer produced a chip that his mentor Phil Mickelson could proud of before knocking in the birdie putt. Thus, he became the youngest man to make the cut at Torrey Pines.
At the British Masters this summer, in his 478th start on the European Tour, Bland tasted the salt in his tears, a rich reward for his ready attitude to sweat it out despite an “apparent” lack of success. But in this story of the Bland, victory often lay in the beauty of his tireless grind.
Over a span of four decades, Bland has played four majors. Including the 121st US Open. He missed the cut in the 1998 Open Championship and the 2009 U.S. Open. Bland enjoyed a good outing in 2017 Open, T22. Now he is leading the US Open at 5-under through 36 holes. At 48, the USGA confirmed that he is the oldest 36-hole leader in the tournament’s history.
Bland (67) has a share of the lead with Russell Henley (70). Louis Oosthuizen (71) and Matthew Wolff (68) are a shot back. Henley could have steered two clear if he made an 18-footer for birdie on his last, the ninth hole. But, unfortunately, he saw his par putt, from just two feet lip out of the cup, settling into a tie for the lead.
Bubba Watson (67) and Jon Rahm (70) worked their way to 3-under heading into the weekend.
The juicy prospect of Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau being paired into the same group did not materialise, despite the two golfers squaring up at even par. Justin Thomas is also in the eight-man cohort, even with Torrey Pines at the halfway stage.
“I want to give the gym-goers a run for their money,” said Bland, competing against the younger lot.
“To lead a major is always pretty special,” he added. “I tied the lead at The Open in 2017 for a hole, so it is nice to have it a bit longer than that.”
Bland is riding a good run of form, and his accuracy off the tee is helping him navigate this 7,664 yard South Course with great precision. The Englishman has made 19 of 28 fairways and 24 of 36 greens.
Only nine strokes separate the field. The cut left seventy-one golfers in the battle for silver, with the last of them sitting at 4-over 146.