There was a reason for 12.24 Wisconsin time on Friday being widely regarded as a potentially seminal moment.
For the first occasion in this, the 97th US PGA Championship, Jordan Spieth had clambered to the summit of the leaderboard – albeit temporarily. It is unclear which was the louder: gallery hollering or alarm bells in the ears of Spieth’s fellow competitors.
Five hours later came another key juncture. Play was suspended for the day on account of a wicked storm; it will resume at 7am on Saturday with a batch of players still to complete their second rounds. Among them are the Australian pair of Jason Day and Matt Jones, who have surged past Spieth in reaching nine under par and the front of the queue. Justin Rose, who has shown such consistently excellent form in recent times, trails by only one.
Dustin Johnson, typically, was one over par through 14 holes following his imperious play on Thursday. Camels’ rear ends and sandstorms spring to mind, though, when considering the tightness of the leading protagonists. There are 51 players under par.
Tiger Woods survived for the weekend but only on a technicality. The 14-times major winner will pick up from the 14th hole, lying two shots outside the cut line. Nothing Woods has produced suggests he can pull off the snookers required to play rounds three and four.
At the lunchtime juncture in question, Spieth was an aggregate of 43 under par in 2015 major championships. Context comes in the fact that was 20 shots better than any other player. Spieth is seeking to become the first player to win the Masters, US Open and US PGA in the same calendar year. He has ripped up record books and laughed in the face of golfing status with a routine which belies his youthfulness.
And yet, in Day particularly Spieth has a challenger who is on a mission finally to take the major title he has courted for so long. The mere fact that Rose has won one of the big four already enhances the level of respect he is due, aside from a return to the putting touch which deserted him for so long.
Spieth had meandered along in the company of Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson before the kind of moment which has defined his year. The 22-year-old holed out from a bunker, short and right of the 18th green at Whistling Straits – his ninth – to reach three under par. Suddenly he was a live threat.
By the time Spieth bounced from the course he sat at six under with rounds of 71 and 67. Bookmakers raced for cover. Later in the day everyone else was forced to do likewise as torrential rain and lightning arrived.
That 18th, one of the most ferocious par-fours in the United States, has defined the difference between Spieth and McIlroy. Spieth is an aggregate of one under par there through two rounds; McIlroy is three over. The world No1’s double bogey there would have hurt even more than usual, given his playing partner’s heroics.
McIlroy recovered thereafter, chipping in for eagle at the 2nd before making birdie at the 6th to reach three under. Another aberration overshadowed the Northern Irishman’s closing stretch, after he failed to make par at the 7th. A 71 leaves him seven shy of the lead, far from a disastrous position but one which leaves significant work to be done.
A lack of competitive sharpness, the inevitable consequence of a recently enforced injury absence, is the obvious explanation for McIlroy’s inability to convert chance after chance on the greens. Such trouble, though, has underminedhis hopes of success on several occasions this year. This time he looked disconsolate.
Hiroshi Iwata opened with a 77 which seemed to render a missed cut inevitable but found himself standing on the 18th tee requiring only par to break the Whistling Straits course record. A birdie on the closing hole would have afforded Iwata the first ever 62 in a major championship. He had to make do with the 27th 63 of all time.
Ian Poulter’s second successive 75 inevitably meant a missed cut. Adam Scott, too, made a premature exit from the Midwest at seven over. The Australian’s departure at least offered one saving grace; with a rule change imminent, never again will his anchored putting stroke be given a major platform. Presumably this would be tougher for Scott to handle if it was actually doing him any good.
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