June 17, 2017: It was near the end of his round Friday, and Jason Day’s fate had been sealed. Doomed to his first missed cut at a US Open, he was simply trying to stay out of the way of playing partner Rory McIlroy, who suddenly had a hot hand.
Given the wayward shots coming from Day’s clubs, it was not a difficult task.
“Unfortunately with where I was hitting it,” Day said, “I wasn’t in the way.”
Pardon the gallows humor. After shooting a 3-under 75 to finish at 10 over for his two rounds at Erin Hills, it was all Day could muster.
McIlroy, the reigning FedExCup champ, fared slightly better. Thanks to four birdies in his last six holes, he managed a 1-under 71. Alas, due to his struggles on Thursday when he shot 78, McIlroy finished at 5 over and suffered the same fate as Day.
A few hours later, the defending U.S. Open also got the hook. Dustin Johnson, the current FedExCup points leader, shot a 73 to finish at 4 over — three strokes outside the cut line.
That means the world’s top three players will miss the weekend for the first time in a major since the Official World Golf Ranking was established in 1986.
It’s certainly a shock.
In his last 17 starts in majors, No. 1 Johnson has eight top 10s, including his win at Oakmont last year, and just two missed cuts. No. 2 McIlroy had won three times, posted 10 top-10 finishes and missed the cut just twice. No. 3 Day, meanwhile, was riding a streak of 17 consecutive made cuts in majors, with one win and – again – 10 top-10 finishes.
Plus, on a course that has measured more than 7,800 yards in each of the first two rounds, you would have expected all three to thrive with their power games.
“If you look at the golf course and you even talk to me, Jason or Rory, this course sets up perfect for us,” Johnson said. “But as we all know, this game’s all about putting. So it’s pretty simple — I just didn’t get it in the hole fast enough.”
In retrospect, perhaps the missed cuts are not a total surprise – at least from McIlroy’s standpoint. He was sidelined earlier this year with a rib injury and has made just five PGA TOUR starts in 2017. He feels healthy now, but he came in rusty – and it showed in his opening round.
After hitting just five fairways and nine greens on Thursday, McIlroy’s ball-striking improved in the second round, as he hit 11 fairways and 12 greens. He was still 9 over for the tournament going into his last six holes, but he found a groove that offered at least a few good vibes heading into next week’s Travelers Championship.
“Gave myself a lot more looks,” McIlroy said. “But I think at the end of the day, it’s competitive rounds and get the card in my hand. I’ve been very light on competitive rounds this year and it’s just a matter of getting into a good round of golf now.
“I saw some positives there on the back nine coming in, and hopefully I can take them to the Travelers.”
After Thursday’s round, McIlroy and his coach Michael Bannon discussed his swing issues. McIlroy said his transition was too quick, that he would get to the top of his swing and then essentially lunge at the ball.
“I just tried to smooth out the transition today,” McIlroy said, “and it definitely worked. … I think at this point in time, I just need to play a round of golf. Even though it’s very disappointing to not be here on the weekend, I think these last two rounds will serve me well going into the summer.”
Johnson blamed his struggles this week on one club — his putter. After a couple of tap-in birdies to start his round, Johnson missed a short attempt on the fourth hole and never got untracked.
“I couldn’t possibly shoot any higher than I did,” said Johnson, who will not play again until next month’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. “I just struggled on the greens. It’s simple.”
As for Day, he entered this week with a stellar track record at the U.S. Open – five top-10 finishes in six career starts. Even though he hasn’t won since THE PLAYERS Championship in 2016, he had been playing better of late, finishing second late last month at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
He was certainly confident in his prep work for Erin Hills; in fact, he called it the best preparation he’s ever had going into a major. And having already won the most recent major in Wisconsin – the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits – he felt an unusual sense of calmness.
But two triple bogeys on Thursday when he found trouble in the fescue were simply too costly to overcome, especially on a day when a record 44 players broke par. He ended up hitting balls after his afternoon finish, but he thinks now the late-night range session might have been a mistake, as it left him sluggish going into Friday’s early-morning tee time.
Pressing to go low to make the cut, he didn’t have enough reserves to draw upon to ever make a move Friday. Plus, his usually stellar short game deserted him, as he failed to get up-and-down several times in his two rounds.
“When you see someone that shoots 7-under [which Rickie Fowler did Thursday] and the guys in the morning tear up the golf course, I’ve got to try to be a little bit aggressive,” Day said. “But then again, you sit there and it’s the U.S. Open. Things can turn pretty bad – which they did for me.”
Ironically, while others were glad to see the unusually wide and generous fairways at Erin Hills, Day thought it might have been a hindrance for him. He said the width of the fairways negatively affected his focus off the tee.
“I think when you’re trying to aim at a target usually at a normal golf course, with normal-width fairways, there’s some pressure into hitting the fairway because it is a lot narrower than we have out here,” Day said. “I think with everything so large, your target is larger and your misses get even more extreme.
“Being out of position off the tee does not help. The execution was not there.”
On the flip side, though, Day did enjoy one aspect of his two rounds at Erin Hills.
“I enjoyed the walk,” he said. “The walk was great.”
Pardon the gallows humor. Again.