SAN FRANCISCO – If you want to know how the U.S. Open is going at the halfway point, here at this taskmaster of a golf course called the Olympic Club, perhaps it's best we dust off the old joke about the young bull and the old bull.
A sanitized version of the joke goes: A young bull and an old bull are standing on a hill, gazing below at a meadow full of cows. The young bull cries out, enthusiastically: "Hey, let's run down there and make love to one of those cows!"
The old bull, stoic, replies: "How about we walk down, and make love to all of them?"
And there's your 2012 United States Open golf championship, sports fans: Respect the wisdom of the old bull.
This place is varsity only. If a player came to Olympic without any pelts on his wall, without the scars of experience, without years of learned patience and the ability to absorb the cruelest of blows, that player was not ready to walk with the old bulls.
In other words, the three-way tie at the 36-hole marker features three of the game's most stoic.
Knotted at 1-under 139 after traversing the side hill lies and running fairways of this venerable golf course are: Tiger Woods, 36 years old, owner of 14 major championships and in the midst of re-introducing a fierce mental sharpness to his game; Jim Furyk, 42 years old, owner of a U.S. Open title, and ready to bring a beneficial emotional detachment to the weekend; and David Toms, 45 years old, owner of a PGA Championship and prepared to deploy a tactician's master eye late into Sunday evening.
Olympic has distilled Woods, Furyk and Toms to their essence, and that essence – dialing back on distance, understanding bounces into greens, not demanding anything from a Lake Course that has no interest in giving – separates them from the field by two shots.
"You really have to manage your game around this golf course, bottom line," said Toms, whose even-par 70 earned him a penultimate pairing on Saturday. "I think that's what major champions do, or guys that have been out here for a long time do."
Olympic Club is no track for a player bent on birdies and eagles saving his game. If you came to San Francisco searching for exhilaration on the golf course, thrill-seeking at a major, you are headed home. Bubba Watson, master bomber, hitting driver like this place was Augusta National West? Gone. Rory McIlroy, a year after smashing scoring records at rain-soaked Congressional, facing an entirely different test at Olympic? Gone. Dustin Johnson, perhaps the ultimate young bull when it comes to matter over mind? Gone.
But if a player walked into Olympic's Spanish-styled clubhouse on Thursday morning packing a week's worth of patience and grind, the player is rewarded with the halfway lead. Plodders of the world, unite.
"I plodded along," Furyk said after three birdies, two bogeys and a 69. "Plod, I think, is a good word."
Said Woods, after three birdies, three bogeys and a 70: "This tournament, you just are plodding along. You have to stay patient, stay present, play for a lot of pars."
Statistics and history link the trio of leaders. Furyk and Toms bring almost identical games to Olympic: short on distance (Furyk 164th on the PGA Tour in driving distance; Toms 174th) and deadly in finding fairways (Furyk second on tour in accuracy, Toms third). Woods, meanwhile, leads the field at the Open at the halfway point in driving accuracy, in large part because he has mastered Sean Foley's swing teachings enough to control the many irons he is hitting off tee boxes. And, at an Olympic Club layout playing a relatively short 7,011 total yards on Friday – last year's Congressional layout totaled 7,574 by comparison – Toms and Furyk have found a comfort level, a welcome spot, even beyond the pleasant and mild Northern California coastal air and pretty light.
"The fairways are chasing out," said Toms, of the USGA's firm landing areas. "So as far as me being a short hitter, it's not a problem this week. It's not a problem for Jim, as well. And I think that's probably good for Tiger because he's not having to hit driver on every hole."
Moreover, Furyk and Woods share a mutual admiration for the practice range, and each man's like personality made for a compatible tandem in past Ryder Cups, particularly taking two of three matches in 2006 in Ireland.
"I've always admired how he maneuvered his way around the golf course," Woods said of Furyk, with whom he will tee off at 3:05 p.m. PT in the final pairing. "That's one of the reasons we were such great partners together in the Cups. We think alike."
All around Olympic on Friday, strewn amid the striking Monterey pine and cypress trees, golf carnage lay. A 17-year-old high schooler named Beau Hossler held the solitary lead at one point, then went four-over through Olympic's gauntlet of holes one through six, and tumbled into a tie for ninth, four shots back. First-round leader Michael Thompson was 4-over after his first six holes, and shot 75. Phil Mickelson sweated and muttered his way to a 71 and barely made the cut.
It was no place for the careless, no place for those looking for a loophole. At Olympic, no quarter is given. Only those who understand it, and meet it on its terms – "take what the golf course gives you," said Furyk – will find enlightenment.
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