Li leads the way as mistakes prove costly for Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry

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There were plenty of low numbers to be had once again TPC Harding Park on Friday, but it was one very big number that ruined a rally by Rory McIlroy.

After fighting his way into the top-20 and rekindling hopes of snapping a six-year major drought, McIlroy threw all of his hard work away with a brutal triple bogey on 12th hole. A late birdie got him into red figures with a 1-under 69 and tied for 31st, seven shots off the lead.

“It went from thinking I’m right on the cusp of getting into contention to just making the cut,” McIlroy said. “I was happy how I responded after that 7 and made a birdie coming in and played pretty solid, and that’s all I could really ask of myself after that.”

Reigning Open champion Shane Lowry suffered a slower bleed, falling from a perch inside the top 15 after a couple of early birdies by making five bogeys in a six-hole stretch from Nos. 8-13.

A late birdie got him back to even par and booked him a relatively early tee time on Saturday tied for 45th. Graeme McDowell (72-74) finished 6-over and missed the cut.

The good news is contention is one low round away on a course willing to reward those who can keep it out of Harding Park’s lush and patchy rough. China’s Haotong Li caught the early wave with a 65 to stake himself to the halfway lead at 8-under par, two shots ahead of a six-man cluster including two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka.

Tommy Fleetwood and Cameron Champ shot the lowest rounds of the week, 6-under 64s, to climb into the fray.

It looked like McIlroy might make a similar charge into weekend contention. After a desultory opening 70 on Thursday and a couple of early bogeys in the second round had him nine strokes adrift of the lead, McIlroy made a major move up the leaderboard with four consecutive birdies from holes 7-10. 

The familiar bounce in his step returned as his sat 3-under and inside the top 20.

Then came the 12th, a converted par 5 that was being played at a daunting 503 yards on Friday. McIlroy aggressive line off the tee snuck a little bit left and sank down deep in the rough. From there, he smothered a sharp hook into grassy bunker 54 yards left of the hole.

His wedge carried a little far onto the green and wouldn’t stop, leaving him an uphill chip that came up 7 feet short. He missed the bogey putt on the right and then didn’t touch the hole with the 3-foot comebacker. The triple dropped him back to where he started the day and snuffed his enthusiasm.

“Was feeling good, 3-under through 11, and then that 7 just sort of stopped me in my tracks a bit,” McIlroy said. 

“When you’re 3-under par, especially with the way the leaderboard is looking, you’re thinking, okay, get another couple and you’re right into this tournament going into the weekend and all of a sudden you make triple and you’re like, I just need to be here for the weekend.” 

McIlroy was more upset with the way he finished the hole that the lies in the rough that started it off.

“That wasn’t really the problem. I mean, I guess taking 4 from over the back of that green … that’s unacceptable, really, and that was really the cause of the 7,” he said. “But out of position off the tee. I’ve missed that fairway the last two days in a row and I’ve paid for it. I’ve played it in 4-over par.” 

Li, who finished third in the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale, backed up his opening 67 with a 65 and then retreated to the range for a marathon practice round that lasted more than the duration of the afternoon round by first-round leader Jason Day.

“Long way to go. Just want to play my best. If it happens, it happens,” Li said.

Koepka woke up with tightness in his hip and fought his way to a 68, making birdie on his last hole to get to 6-under and tied for second.

“It’s nothing to be worried about,” Koepka said of the hip he had to work on before, during and after the round with his trainer. He said his hitting the ball well enough to be 10-under already if he’d hit a few putts a little harder. “You know, I like where I’m at,” he said.

Fleetwood, twice a major runner-up, who will play in the final pairing Saturday with Li. Also tied for second are major winners Jason Day and Justin Rose, restart resurgent Daniel Berger and France’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera.

“I drove it really well, put it in the fairway around here and it makes a massive, massive difference, and really didn’t give many shots away,” Fleetwood said.

“Felt like I worked my way into the round well and then gained momentum and then kept it going.”

Lorenzo-Vera, playing in only his fifth career major. His run of three straight birdies on his second nine Friday gave him rounds of 66-67 that he kept going by discussing his mother’s lasagna recipe with his brother carrying his bag. Lorenzo-Vera’s best major finish was a tie for 16th in the PGA last year.

Rounding out the top 10 at 5-under are Paul Casey, Brendon Todd and Champ.

“It’s weird, the first three days of practice that I saw here at Harding Park presented an incredibly difficult test of golf,” Casey said. “And then the last two days have been quite generous actually which is nice as a player. It’s not quite as intimidating when you step on that tee.”

The marquee grouping of McIlroy, Woods and world number one Justin Thomas played the first two rounds in a combined even par.

“We all didn’t really have our best,” McIlroy said. “We were grinding just to be here for the weekend. But thankfully all three of us made it to the weekend and we all have an opportunity to go out (Saturday) and post a low one and get ourselves back in the tournament.”

Asked if he still could win this weekend despite sitting even par and eight shots behind, Woods said, “yeah, absolutely.”

“I’m going off early and hopefully I can get it going, drive the ball like I did today, hit my irons a little bit more crisp and be a little bit more aggressive on the putts,” Woods said.

As always in majors, disasters lurked. Rickie Fowler has a self-inflicted one, whiffing on a checked swing tap in putt at the last hole to cost him the stroke he needed to make the cut.

Three-time major winner Martin Kaymer followed his sterling opening-round 66 with second-round 82. Cameron Tringale would have made the cut except he signed for a lower number than he made on the long par-3 eighth hole but didn’t realize his mistake until he left the scoring error and was disqualified.

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