Another day at the U.S. Open, another Canadian challenging for the lead.
Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont. put together a tidy 4-under 67 on Friday at Torrey Pines — tied for the low round of the day — and has a share of seventh place heading into the weekend in San Diego. Countryman Adam Hadwin, now tied for 13th, was near the lead Thursday.
Hughes had a “couldn’t be better” start on Friday, making birdie on holes 10 through 12 — his first three of the round. That trio included a chip-in from off the green on the par-4 11th.
“I felt like I was more than three shots ahead of the field there,” Hughes said of his torrid start. “So that was big. Then just kind of felt like I got into the round quickly with that start and felt like I was back in the tournament.”
This is the first time Hughes has made the cut at the U.S. Open after three previous attempts.
“It’s a hard test of golf every U.S. Open you play, so it doesn’t take much to miss a cut. I feel like I’ve been a pretty strong performer on the PGA Tour for the last five years, but U.S. Open is a different animal,” said Hughes.
His caddy, fellow Canadian Jace Walker, told the Star that Hughes drove and putted much better than Thursday. He even drained a 40-foot birdie bomb on the par-4 second.
“Just his attitude and demeanour were amazing,” said Walker. “He’s burned a lot of edges the last month, so it was nice to see a few fall for my man.”
Being a little more on helped Hughes into a key position through two rounds. Twenty-three of the last 25 U.S. Open winners have been inside the top 10 through two rounds and Hughes is in the mix.
The 30-year-old entered the week having missed five straight cuts but told the Star prior to the tournament that he didn’t feel like he needed to do all that much different to have success this week — three of those early exits came by just one shot.
“I felt like I couldn’t miss every cut, so five cuts in a row, I felt like I was kind of due to play some good golf,” Hughes said with a smile on Friday.
“I felt like I just had to keep my head down and keep working hard. I was just, again, hoping that results were coming. I just didn’t know when — if they were going to be next week, this week, a month. I’ve been working hard at it and feel like I’m going the right direction.”
Hughes sits just three shots back of the 36-hole lead shared by Richard Bland of England and Russell Henley, two golfers who took very different paths to Torrey Pines.
Henley, 32, was a star at the University of Georgia and is a three-time winner on the PGA Tour. Bland is 16 years older and the feel-good story of the week.
The Englishman is using a 3-wood from 2017 and rocks a hat supplied by his home club across the pond (“I don’t have a hat kind of deal at the minute, so if anyone is offering …”). This is just his third major tournament in a 28-year career as a pro.
Earlier this year, Bland was part of a special moment after winning on the European Tour for the first time in his 478th start. He was emotional, of course, and jumped on a teary video call with his parents after capturing the British Masters on May 15 — becoming the oldest first-time winner in European Tour history in the process.
With the win, Bland sparked an outpouring of emotion across the sporting world, with people coming up to him with stories of how they never gave up.
“Golf is all I know,” said Bland. “When times got tough and I lost my card two or three times, I thought, ‘What am I going to do, go and get an office job?’ I’m not that intelligent, I’m afraid.”
Bland’s 4-under 67 tied Hughes, Bubba Watson and Collin Morikawa for the round of the day.
“I’ve been driving the ball well for five, six weeks now, which is the cornerstone if you’re going to put a fight up for a U.S. Open,” said Bland. “When I saw the course Monday, yeah, you know what? I thought, ‘I can play around here.’”
Hughes and Hadwin (even par) were the only Canadians to make the weekend. Taylor Pendrith (5-over) and Corey Conners (6-over) missed the cut by one and two shots, respectively. This is just Conners’ second missed cut since February.
Adam Stanley is an Ottawa-based contributor to the Star’s Sports section and the host of golf podcast Next Round’s On Me. Follow him on Twitter: @adam_stanley