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Graeme McDowell leads charge at US Open 2010

By James Corrigan at Pebble Beach

As Phil Mickelson sent fireworks soaring across the Montererey Peninsula yesterday, so Graeme McDowell reached for the stars for which he has so long attained.

After two rounds of the US Open Championship, the Ulsterman is on three-under and peering down from the very top of the leaderboard.

Yet it is the darling of California in joint-second who created the roars to give this tournament much-needed life. Mickelson produced a round full of guts and brilliance to put his mission back on track to finally win the game’s toughest major. The lefthander was at his most irresistible in leaving behind an opening 75 to record a best-of-the-week 66.

Five times a US Open runner-up is Mickelson on the brink of the victory would mean more than any other than him, the victory which would not only secure him the trophy he craves but also the world No 1 ranking? As this spectacular links emptied last night that was the word filling every sea-breeze.

“I just got hot with the putter, I made some birdies early on and then made some good pars,” was the way Mickelson saw it. Indeed, he set off like a player possessed, unrecognisable to the man who failed to post a single birdie on Thursday. Soon there were six, with five coming in the first eight. It was vintage Lefty and makes him the clear favourite to win a second major in succession.

That Tiger Woods is only just in sight obviously ratchets up the tension at such a tranquil setting. Having won here by a record margin in 2000, Woods will be a backmarker going into today’s third round. A 72 to add to his opening 74 leaves him on four-over, seven off McDowell, five off Mickelson and with a mammoth task awaiting. If he is to restate his sporting mastery after all that ridicule and rust Woods will have to produce one of his most memorable major weekends. And at the moment he just does not seem capable, no matter how vehemently he states otherwise.

“I feel good, I’m right there in this championship,” he said. “It’s the US Open and it’s a long haul. But I’ve got to make a few more birdies. So far I’ve only made what, three in the first two days?”

McDowell has made 11. His two-shot advantage is the very least he deserved after a supremely-controlled 68, which was only to suffer in comparison to Mickelson‘s afternoon heroics. After winning the Wales Open two Sundays ago, McDowell said: “I think I’ve got a big one in me.” Golf is only now discovering quite how big McDowell meant. “I‘m very happy to be going into the weekend in this position, it‘s what I‘ve practiced so hard for,” said the Ryder Cup man after a round featuring six birdies. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about picking up the trophy on Sunday afternoon. That’s only natural. But I feel I am as ready as I ever be. Will this weekend be my weekend? I don’t know but if I get a sniff on Sunday afternoon I‘ll be ready.”

Inevitably, it will be far easier declared than accomplished as the chasing pack has its notable names. Paul Casey is among the pursuers on level par; the continued presence of the world No 9 raising hopes of a first European victory in the US Open in four decades. Once again, Casey had his putter to thank in a 73 which stopped the joint overnight leader from drifting over par. As he said, “this round was far from disastrous”, although he was left stunned by an eight on the par-five 14 th . “That was a weird triple bogey,“ he said. “I walked off thinking ‘what happened there?’ I only hit one chunked pitch. The other seven shots were quite good.”

In between McDowell and Casey is not only Mickelson but also Ernie Els, Ryo Ishikawa and Dustin Johnson. Els took just 25 putts and, boasting two big titles in America already this year, the resurgent Big Easy will be fancying his chances of a third US Open title. He can stride forward with such confidence as has already exorcised one ghost here. A decade ago he played in the final round with Woods and ended up as the stranded runner-up, 15 strokes behind. He played with the same rival these first two days and prevailed by five strokes. What a difference 10 years makes, if not a sensational sex scandal.

“I’m certainly playing well enough and are my previous wins going to help? Sure they are. But it‘s been so long,” said Els, who lifted his last major title, the Open, at Muirfield eight years ago. “When I look back now I think it’s amazing I won a US Open at Oakmont as a 24-year-old. I must have been out of my head to think I could win at 24.”

Now 40, Els happens to be 22 years older than Ryo Ishikawa, although this startling 18-year-old makes everyone feel old; particularly Tom Watson. The 60-year-old played with Ishikawa and fared commendably himself with a 71 for a seven-over total to make the cut and so strike yet another blow for vets sections everywhere. Yet it was the boy who stood out, “Of course Ryo could win here this, regardless of his age,“ said Watson. “Look at his score, it’s right there. These are difficult greens but Ryo just rams it dead-centre straight in there. He reminded me of myself when I was 18. No fear.“ But it’s not all gung-ho as with seven titles on his home tour, Ishikawa knows what it takes. Along with Mickelson and Els here is another live contender.

But then, Johnson’s challenge should not be lightly dismissed and neither will it by anyone who believes in the old adage of “horses for courses“. The big-hitting American has won the last two tournaments played on this course - the AT&T Pro-Ams of 2009 and 2010 - and he has reconfirmed his liking for the scenic surrounds with a 70 to go with a 71. Yes, the 110 th US Open is still replete with possibilities. But Mickelson‘s charge at Woods is quite clearly the most enticing.

US Open Championship Pebble Beach GC, Pebble Beach, California

Par 71 (* = amateur)

Scores from Pebble Beach

3 Graeme McDowell (Britain) 71 68,

-1 Ernie Els (South Africa) 73 68, Dustin Johnson (U.S.) 71 70, Ryo Ishikawa (Japan) 70 71, Phil Mickelson (U.S.) 75 66, Even Alex Cejka (Germany) 70 72, Paul Casey (Britain) 69 73, Brendon De Jonge (Zimbabwe) 69 73, Jerry Kelly (U.S.) 72 70,

+1 Soren Kjeldsen (Denmark) 72 71, K.J. Choi (South Korea) 70 73, Ian Poulter (Britain) 70 73,

+2 Scott Langley (U.S.) 75 69, Gregory Havret (France) 73 71, Tim Clark (South Africa) 72 72,

+3 Shaun Micheel (U.S.) 69 76, Lee Westwood (Britain) 74 71, Martin Kaymer (Germany) 74 71, Charl Schwartzel (South Africa) 74 71, Jason Allred (U.S.) 72 73, Jason Preeo (U.S.) 75 70, Rafael Cabrera (Spain) 70 75, Justin Leonard (U.S.) 72 73, Jason Dufner (U.S.) 72 73, Ross McGowan (Britain) 72 73,

+4 Noh Seung-Yul (South Korea) 74 72, Vijay Singh (Fiji) 74 72, Tiger Woods (U.S.) 74 72, Fred Funk (U.S.) 74 72, Luke Donald (Britain) 71 75, Padraig Harrington (Ireland) 73 73, Matt Kuchar (U.S.) 74 72, Scott Verplank (U.S.) 72 74, Lucas Glover (U.S.) 73 73, David Toms (U.S.) 71 75, Matt Bettencourt (U.S.) 72 74

+5 Steve Wheatcroft (U.S.) 74 73, Sean O'Hair (U.S.) 76 71, Russell Henley (U.S.) 73 74, Edoardo Molinari (Italy) 75 72, Bo Van Pelt (U.S.) 72 75, Camilo Villegas (Colombia) 78 69, Angel Cabrera (Argentina) 75 72, Jim Furyk (U.S.) 72 75, Henrik Stenson (Sweden) 77 70, Nick Watney (U.S.) 76 71, Robert Karlsson (Sweden) 75 72

+6 David Duval (U.S.) 75 73, Ben Curtis (U.S.) 78 70, Rhys Davies (Britain) 78 70, Ryan Moore (U.S.) 75 73, Matthew Richardson (Britain) 73 75, Erick Justesen (U.S.) 74 74, Steve Marino (U.S.) 73 75, Robert Allenby (Australia) 74 74, Eric Axley (U.S.) 75 73, Ricky Barnes (U.S.) 72 76, Craig Barlow (U.S.) 73 75

+7 Gareth Maybin (Britain) 74 75, Chris Stroud (U.S.) 77 72, Sergio Garcia (Spain) 73 76, Pablo Martin (Spain) 73 76, Steve Stricker (U.S.) 75 74, Davis Love III (U.S.) 75 74, Peter Hanson (Sweden) 73 76, Tom Watson (U.S.) 78 71, Kenny Perry (U.S.) 72 77, Brandt Snedeker (U.S.) 75 74, John Mallinger (U.S.) 77 72, Toru Taniguchi (Japan) 73 76, Hiroyuki Fujita (Japan) 72 77, Zach Johnson (U.S.) 72 77, Retief Goosen (South Africa) 75 74, Mike Weir (Canada) 70 79, Stuart Appleby (Australia) 73 76, Stewart Cink (U.S.) 76 73, Yuta Ikeda (Japan) 77 72, Thongchai Jaidee (Thailand) 74 75, Jason Gore (U.S.) 76 73, Jim Herman (U.S.) 76 73, Bobby Gates (U.S.) 75 74, Kent Jones (U.S.) 73 76, Ty Tryon (U.S.) 75 74

Projected cut line

150 H Swafford* 76 74; R Fisher (Eng) 74 76; T Lehman 76 74; S Dyson (Eng) 76 74; A Quiros (Sp) 80 70; A Yano (Japan) 74 76; M A Jimenez (Sp) 73 77; M Hoffmann 75 75; J-F Lucquin (Fr) 75 75. 151 J Rollins 74 77; J J Henry 79 72; O Wilson (Eng) 75 76; M Leishman (Aus) 77 74; L Oosthuizen (SA) 77 74; R Barcelo 77 74; K Kim (S Kor) 78 73. 152 B Crane 80 72; R McIlroy (NIrl) 75 77; P Goydos 76 76; H Slocum 75 77. 153 M Sim (Aus) 77 76; G Boyd (Eng) 78 75.154 B Davis (Eng) 80 74; J Smith 78 76; B Estes 77 77; J Senden (Aus) 80 74; R Mediate 77 77. 155 H Frazar 78 77; R Echenique (Arg) 76 79; R Karlberg (Swe) 77 78. 156 M Gronberg (Swe) 80 76; D Summerhays 79 77. 157 A Baddeley (Aus) 80 77; T Pilkadaris (Aus) 78 79. 158 E Compton 77 81; K Phelan* 83 75. 161 M Campbell (NZ) 78 83. 164 M Silvers 82 82. 165 B Peffley 86 79. 166 B Blakeman* 81 85.

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