By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
ERIN, Wis. (AP) — Don’t be alarmed to see a few names atop the leaderboard at the U.S. Open that are familiar only to hard-core golf fans.
It was only last year at Oakmont that Andrew Landry, who had to make it through two stages of qualifying to get into his first U.S. Open, shared the 36-hole lead with Dustin Johnson. Billy Horschel was tied for the 36-hole lead at Merion. Olin Browne and Jason Gore were part of a 36-hole tie at Pinehurst No. 2.
It’s not much different than what USGA executive director Mike Davis said about bringing the U.S. Open to Erin Hills, a course that only opened 11 years ago. It doesn’t have much history, “but everybody had to start somewhere.”
Most unusual about Saturday is the four-way tie for the lead among Paul Casey, Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood and Brian Harman.
It’s the most players tied after 36 holes of the U.S. since 1974 at Winged Foot, only the names from 43 years ago resonate more than today — Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. They would combine for 23 majors by the end of their careers, but in 1974 they collectively had only 15.
That’s still 15 more than the Erin Hills leads.
In fact, that’s 15 more than the top 18 players on the leaderboard going into the weekend.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and that’s been the case for the last six majors, all won by players who had never won a Grand Slam event before.
Provided the rain stays away, Brandt Snedeker believes the course will get dry and fast enough to create a little more separation.
Snedeker has never won a major, either, though he has been through the emotional ringer at Augusta National and Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Until this U.S. Open gets to that point, here’s a brief introduction of the four players at 7-under 137:
The 26-year-old Englishman has been on the European Tour since 2011. He dedicated his first victory, the 2013 Johnnie Walker Championship, to his dog, Maisy. He has four top 10s between the European and PGA Tours this season and is up to No. 33 in the world ranking.
His wavy brown hair and light beard would make him fit right in on the North Shore of Oahu, although he’s from Southport, England.
“I’ve never done this before,” Fleetwood said. “I’ve never played a U.S. Open, so tomorrow will be a very cool experience.”
He must have a short memory. He tied for 27th at Chambers Bay two years ago.
He gave Dustin Johnson a good chase in Mexico, finishing one shot behind. The runner-up finish, along with a $1 million check, moved him into the top 50 and secured his spot in the Masters and U.S. Open.
The Florida native has more good finishes in the majors than any of the other four. Koepka was a global golfer, though not by choice, when he left Florida State. Without a tour to play, he headed off to the European minor leagues, won three times to earn a promotion to the European Tour and won in Turkey.
But it was his tie for fourth in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 that enabled him to get a PGA Tour card. He won his only PGA Tour event in the Phoenix Open, but along the way, he tied for fifth in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and then tied for fourth in the PGA Championship last year at Baltusrol. That locked up a spot on his first Ryder Cup team.
Koepka is big on power, and he’s close friends with Dustin Johnson.
He’s also big on the word “chill,” to describe his lifestyle. Much like Johnson, it takes a lot to get him excited — even a share of the 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open.
“I don’t really care. It’s not Sunday afternoon,” he said. “You’re not going to win it today. Just keep plugging along and try to do the best you can.”
The little lefty from Georgia has a chance to make a little history at Erin Hills. Southpaws have won every major except the U.S. Open. The timing would be peculiar considering that Phil Mickelson couldn’t make it this year. Mickelson has won every major but the U.S. Open.
Harman most recently won the Wells Fargo Championship last month by making a birdie putt on the final hole to avoid a playoff with Dustin Johnson — there’s that name again — and Pat Perez. Johnson is said to have texted a message of congratulations to Harman, who in turn thanked Johnson and wrote back, “I wanted no part of you in a playoff.” As the story goes, Johnson replied, “No, you didn’t.”
Harman has a lot of spunk, though, and that victory got him high enough into the world ranking to secure a spot in the U.S. Open. This is only his eighth major, and the third time he’ll be playing on the weekend. That’s more than Johnson can say this week.
Casey by far is the most experienced of this quartet. His lone victory in America was the Houston Open in 2009, though not to be overlooked are his 14 victories around the world that include two victories in Abu Dhabi, one at the BMW PGA Championship, two at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles and the World Match Play Championship that included Tiger Woods. Casey didn’t play Woods, who was eliminated in the first round. But he wore a red shirt with a swoosh.
He has coped with various injuries, mainly to his foot, but his spirits have never been higher at home with his wife and son, Lex. Casey is so happy that he gave up his European Tour membership — which meant a chance to play on the Ryder Cup team — although Europe might love to have him now.
He is in strong form and was poised to win two FedEx Cup playoff events last year, losing to great finishes to Dustin Johnson (him again) and Rory McIlroy.