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Bland leads at Torrey Pines, shows U.S. Open is truly open

Richard Bland, of England, acknowledges the gallery after making his birdie putt on the second green during the second round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Friday, June 18, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The U.S. Open prides itself on being the most democratic of majors with some 9,000 players from all walks of golf having a chance to compete.

Richard Bland is an example of that.

Just over a month ago, the 48-year-old from England was 0-for-447 in his European Tour career. On Friday, he shot a 4-under 67 and walked off the South course at Torrey Pines with his name atop the leaderboard in the U.S. Open.

“A lot of guys have a lot more on the CV than I do,” Bland said. “But I’m here to compete and give it everything I’ve got.”

Bland was at 5-under 137, one shot ahead of Louis Oosthuizen, setting a target for the likes of Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele to chase in the afternoon.

This is only his fourth major — twice at Royal Birkdale in 1998 and 2017, once at Bethpage Black for the U.S. Open — and he came in on a high note.

Bland won the British Masters last month in his 478th start, making him the oldest first-time winner in European Tour history. That also was the start of a three-tournament series for the leading 10 players to get into the U.S. Open. Travel restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the 36-hole qualifier in England.

He arrived at Torrey Pines and immediately liked what he saw.

“I was feeling pretty good about my game. 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,” Bland said. “When I saw this place on Monday, yeah, it kind of set up to my eye. It’s all there just straight in front of me, and that’s the kind of golf course I like.”

Oosthuizen, coming off a runner-up finish in the PGA Championship, finished with two pars in the morning to cap off a 67 to share the first-round lead with Russell Henley. He didn’t get any lower in the second round and shot 71, but was right in the mix.

Henley played in the afternoon.

Jon Rahm held it together during a rough patch in the thick grass, holed out from a bunker right of the 14th green for an unlikely birdie and shot 70. He was two shots behind Bland.

“Two very different rounds,” Rahm said. “I feel like yesterday I hit it really, really well, hit a lot of fairways. Just made a couple of mistakes going into the greens. Today it was the opposite. Took me a while to get going, didn’t hit my second fairway until the 13th hole, I believe, and I just had to survive.”

Bubba Watson shot 67 and joined Rahm at 3-under 139.

Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy were headed the wrong direction. Johnson, who missed the cut in the Masters and PGA Championship, dropped to 4 over until a late rally gave him a 73 and a spot in the weekend. He was seven behind. McIlroy had to birdie two holes down the stretch for a 73. He was six behind.

The 36-hole lead at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open was 3-under 139. The course is strong as ever with enough wind, though a marine layer has kept sunshine from baking out some of the greens. Then again, the weekend awaits.

Bland will be a big part of it, and that’s the charm of the U.S. Open.

“I love that about the game,” defending champion Bryson DeChambeau said after a 69 left him five shots behind. “Anybody, any age group, can play this great game and compete and contend. If you’re got the skill set to get the ball in the hole in the least amount of shots, you can be up there with the young guns.”

Bland won first first European Tour title a week before 50-year-old Phil Mickelson became golf’s oldest major champion at the PGA Championship. Lee Westwood won the Race to Dubai last year in Europe at 47. Stewart Cink has won twice on the PGA Tour this season at 48.

“It’s nice to give these gym guys a run for the money,” Bland said.

He is the classic journeyman, happy to be making a living at golf for more than two decades, disappointed to have not won until he broke through last month, not nearly surprised as most everyone else that he was leading the U.S. Open.

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