PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The beachgoers spelled it out on the sand below: "Go Phil!"
And did he ever.
In search of the second leg of the 2010 Grand Slam, Phil Mickelson shot a 4-under 31 on the front nine at Pebble Beach on Friday to move within two shots of the lead in the second round of the U.S. Open.
The putter that confounded him during a first-round 75 came alive in this one. He strung together birdies on five of seven holes on the front, capping it with a 15-footer on 8, before giving one stroke back with a bogey on No. 9.
He added another birdie on No. 11, saved par from the rough on 15, and on a day when nobody was taking charge, the run vaulted Mickelson up the leaderboard, tied for second behind leader Graeme McDowell with two holes left.
The U.S. Open record for nine holes is 29, last shot by Vijay Singh in 2003. Mickelson had 30 in reach but couldn't save par after a drive into the rough on No. 9. Still, his front nine put him on pace to shoot the best score of the tournament so far.
McDowell and Ernie Els each shot 68 in morning action Friday. Els, in search of his third U.S. Open title, ended up at 1-under 141, two shots out of the lead and tied with Dustin Johnson and Ryo Ishikawa.
Trying to break through after a record five second-place finishes at the U.S. Open, Mickelson attacked the easiest holes on the course on a day that was made for scoring, even if very few could take advantage.
Mickelson showed what a special shotmaker he can be on a front nine that will be remembered for a long time if he wins his fifth major this weekend.
Playing from a fairway bunker on No. 3, Mickelson hit the green and made the ball spin backward to 6 feet, then made the putt for a birdie. On Nos. 4, 6 and 8, he hit shots that left him with uphill putts and made them all. With two holes remaining, he needed one more birdie to match the 65 that Woods carded in the first round of his record-setting 2000 U.S. Open — the best score ever at a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Early cloud cover on the Monterey Peninsula gave way to partly cloudy skies with light winds and temperatures in the high 50s. Greens that Tiger Woods called "awful" after a sunny, dry round on Thursday, appeared to be running more true.
Not that it helped Woods much.
Opening on the back nine, he chipped in on No. 11 for his first birdie of the tournament, but if things were looking up, it was only for a moment. He bogeyed both the par-3s on the back, missed an 8-foot putt for birdie on No. 18, blocked a tee shot into a bunker on No. 2 and hooked one into the fescue on No. 3.
It added up to a 1-over 72 and a slide down the leaderboard — seven shots behind McDowell. Woods, of course, feels he's still got a chance.
"I just need to keep progressing and keep moving my way up the board," he said. "It's a long haul. The U.S. Open is not going to get easier as the week goes on, especially on the weekend."
Anything is possible with Woods, but clearly this is not the same player who won here by a record 15 shots in 2000. Back then, it was his name, not Mickelson's, carved into the sand down below. He and Mickelson came into this U.S. Open as co-favorites, and in the first round, neither managed a birdie.
Both broke that streak Friday, but where Mickelson kept gathering momentum, Woods kept struggling.
After opening the tournament by hitting 10 straight greens in regulation, he got wild. Since that start, he has gone 13 for 26, and though the greens were better during a morning round Friday than they were Thursday afternoon, he missed a series of makable putts, including the one on 18 and a 12-footer on 6 that slid by.
Els tied for second in 2000 — the 'B' flight at the U.S. Open — but hasn't finished any higher than fifth at the Open since then. He's playing some of his best golf in years in 2010, though, winning twice and now in serious contention at Pebble, which he said resembled "links golf on steroids."
"It's been such a long time since I won one of these, and we've got a long way to go," Els said. "I needed a round like today to get back into the tournament, which is nice."
Johnson is no stranger to hoisting trophies at Pebble Beach. The winner of the last two AT&T National Pro-Ams — the PGA Tour event played here every February — shot a 70 and was in contention despite a four-putt 7 on No. 14 in the opening round.
"Whenever you have success at a golf course you get a lot of confidence," Johnson said. "So I've got a lot of confidence at this golf course, and it sets up very well for me."
Same could be said for 60-year-old Tom Watson, the 1982 champion, who found himself waiting through the afternoon to see if he has played what could possibly be his final U.S. Open round. The heartbreaking runner-up at last year's British shot an even 71 to finish at 7-over 149. That's 10 shots behind McDowell and would be good enough to make the cut if nobody in the afternoon goes lower.
Nobody was threatening to as the second round wound down. There were only five players in red numbers, with a quartet of Alex Cejka, Paul Casey, Brendon de Jonge and Jerry Kelly at even par.