Fowler poised to strike
Ben Coley assesses the situation at the halfway stage of the US Open and reckons Rickie Fowler may be poised to make a move on Saturday.
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It's fair to say that, so far at least, this US Open hasn't gone the way most expected it to.
This isn't to say that a runaway leader wasn't possible, nor that Martin Kaymer himself wasn't well fancied, more than Pinehurst #2 has been a rather different challenge than was suggested in the run-up to the tournament.
Clearly, it's still difficult. Kaymer's 65-65 represents a magnificent achievement and, fully six shots better than the rest, he's been in a league of his own. Only 13 players are better than par heading to the weekend and just seven have broken 70 in both rounds so this is no run-of-the-mill PGA Tour test.
But we're talking about a course which wasn't expected to be difficult - it was expected to be brutal. Players speculated that a score of eight-over might be good enough, yet five-over was needed just to make the weekend and this is a world away from Merion and Olympic Club, the two previous US Open sites.
Reasons for this are many. It seems obvious to me that the widening of the Pinehurst fairways has played a part, but it's what lies off the fairways that's proven to be more forgiving than we're used to. Sandy waste areas which had been described as '50-50' by co-designer Ben Crenshaw are almost always allowing players to advance the ball towards the green so there really isn't a great deal of pressure from the tee.
Around the green, the test remains intense. Brendon Todd, Brandt Snedeker and Kevin Na lead the chasing pack and are all among the best scramblers on the PGA Tour. Kaymer has also scrambled well this week, but the key for him has been hitting to carefully chosen spots and making the short putts - as well as the odd bomb or two which have helped separate him from the pack.
It's fair to expect that the USGA won't have enjoyed watching Kaymer as much as the rest of us and I imagine they'll try to make things really tough from here. Just what they can do is questionable, especially if rain does arrive to further soften what have proved to be surprisingly receptive greens, and in truth any toughening of conditions should play into the leader's hands.
Whatever the case, Kaymer will be hard to catch and it's highly likely that the field needs him to play the rest of the tournament well over-par from here. Discouragingly for those trying to hunt him down, Kaymer has held a clear halfway lead five times in his career and he's won on each occasion, including at Sawgrass just last month. A world-class player with arguably the best mindset in the game right now, the intelligent German is expected to play intelligent golf and turn this tournament into a battle for second.
You can of course bet without Kaymer and I'd suggest speculating with someone just inside the top 20 such as Jason Day, who can be backed at 40/1. Day won't give in and shot 65-68 to finish a distant second to Rory McIlroy back in 2011, with yesterday's bogey-free 68 offering some hope that he might do so again.
However, we've already got him on-side pre-tournament and, along with Keegan Bradley, there's plenty of hope that we could yet enjoy a profitable event without coming close to the winner - as was the case at the Masters in April. If Kaymer does go backwards both these players plus McIlroy are firmly in the picture.
Instead, I'll head to another player who could be involved in the battle for second with Rickie Fowler fancied to beat Steve Stricker in their two-ball (1846 BST).
Stricker is a wonderfully consistent player who is churning out cuts with incredible consistency, particularly given this light schedule he's adopted which sees him play just a dozen or so events on the calendar.
His short game is a big asset here and he won't go anywhere, but of the two it's Fowler who looks like he might just be ready to launch himself into this tournament with one of the best rounds of the day.
The chief reason I say this is because I've been impressed with him so far; seldom has the youngster looked like running up a big number and had he made one or two more putts he could well have been playing alongside Kaymer this afternoon.
It's also encouraging that Fowler shot a third-round 67 in this event last yet, a feat he repeated in the Masters earlier this season, both times going from the fringes of contention to the final few groups on Sunday. It's something he also did in the 2011 Open Championship won by Darren Clarke and it's evidence of a mature mindset which sees him plot his way through these big events.
Obviously, when backing anyone in a two-ball it's generally best not to take on players with the metronomic consistency of Stricker, but the bonus here is we're getting odds-against Fowler and I really think that's extremely generous. Fowler's star remains firmly on the rise and he can remind us of that with another big performance in a major.
Of the other prices on offer, Sky Bet's 10/11 about Adam Scott beating Jordan Spieth looks just a shade too big while Daniel Berger may be more of a threat to Gary Woodland than the prices imply. For me, though, Fowler is the best bet.