PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) – The Big Five took on a new meaning Friday in the U.S. Open.

At the end of a punishing day at Pinehurst No. 2, defending champion Retief Goosen was among five players who escaped with only minimal damage and remained under par at a tournament that turned into a horror show for some of the best players in golf.

Goosen looked unflappable and unstoppable as ever until the slightest misses led to two bogeys over his final two holes, giving him an even-par 70 and a share of the lead with Olin Browne and Jason Gore.

They were at 2-under 138, the highest 36-hole score in nine years, with no guarantees they would stay up there long. Mark Hensby and K.J. Choi were one shot behind.

Goosen is the only member of the real “Big Five,” although Pinehurst doesn’t care about world rankings.

“This course will whip your butt, plain and simple, every single shot,” Browne said after he steadied himself from a bunker-to-bunker double bogey.

One by one, Pinehurst picked off anyone who tried to get hold of this championship.

First it was Phil Mickelson, who missed five putts inside 10 feet while shooting 41 on his front nine, winding up with his highest round in the U.S. Open – 7-over 77 – in 11 years.

Then came Tiger Woods, so frustrated that he scraped up the grass on the ninth green after leaving another putt short, drawing a mild reprimand from the USGA over etiquette.

No one suffered quite like David Toms, who was in the lead by himself until dropping five shots over the final two holes, finishing with a triple bogey when he took two shots to get up the steep slope on the ninth green.

Now they get two more days to see who survives this wide-open Open, were two dozen players were within five shots of the lead going into the weekend.

The idea is not to make a move, but to stay put.

“If I finish even par for the tournament, I would win by more than one, I think,” Sergio Garcia said after a 69 that left him at even-par 140, along with Vijay Singh (70), Michael Campbell (69) and Lee Westwood (72).

For the second straight day, the guy who played the best under the most severe conditions was someone no one expected, let alone recognized.

Gore, who has spent only two years on the PGA Tour and hasn’t even had a top 10 on the Nationwide Tour this year, looked rock solid by playing his final 12 holes in 2-under and shooting a 67. The only score better came from Peter Hedblom, whose 66 under overcast skies in the morning was the best ever at Pinehurst in a U.S. Open.

Browne, who hasn’t been a full PGA Tour member since 2003, held it together nicely considering his debacle at the par-3 sixth. He went from the front bunker to the back bunker, then past the pin and down the slope off the green. After a safe chip to 25 feet, he holed the putt for double bogey, finished with pars and shot 71.

The 46-year-old Browne has never been in this position, and he’s trying not to notice.

“If you get worried about the stage, you’ve got problems,” Browne said. “This particular stage will hammer you.”

No one was surprised to see Goosen atop the leaderboard.

He already has captured the U.S. Open twice in the last four years, making it look all so methodical with his cool demeanor and unshakeable ability to make putts.

The South African might have been the only one among those under par who left Pinehurst disappointed.

He missed the fifth green with a 9-iron to take bogey, then watched another 9-iron on No. 7 trickle off the edge into a sandy patch of ground just above the bunker, leading to another bogey.

“If you don’t hit the ball properly, you’re in trouble,” Goosen said. “I felt I could finish 4 or 5 under. With short irons like that, you shouldn’t miss the green.”

Mickelson learned the hard way.

Starting the day just two shots out of the lead and playing in the morning, when overcast skies and cooler conditions made Pinehurst more playable, Lefty only produced half of his short-game wizardy.

He could chip, he just couldn’t putt.

Mickelson’s 77 was his highest score in the U.S. Open since a 79 the final day at Oakmont in 1994, and he was eight shots out of the lead.

“It’s a tough course to turn things around on because you just can’t make birdies,” he said. “The more you try to make birdies, the more bogeys you’re going to make. I was just trying to salvage pars, and had a tough time doing it.”

Woods started strong with two birdies on the first four holes, but it wasn’t long before he ran into problems with the pace of the greens – a three-putt on No. 6, and another one on the ninth, which ran some 12 feet by the cup. When the par putt came up short, he dragged his putter across the green and scuffed up the line.

He left two birdie putts inside 12 feet short on the final four holes, and cursed as he walked off the 18th. Woods wound up with a 71 and was just three shots behind.

“Days like today typify a U.S. Open,” he said. “No one is going to run off with it.”

It was wild and wacky, typical of what can happen on the domed greens Donald Ross designed. In one bizarre sequence, Westwood holed a 30-foot putt from off the green. Kenny Perry was next, and his putt rolled back off the slope to his feet. Then he made the next one for par.

Toms wasn’t so lucky.

After making a 40-foot birdie on the par-3 sixth, he was poised to take the 36-hole lead. But his bunker shot on the eighth hole barely got to the green, and he three-putted for double bogey. Still just one shot behind, Toms went from the bunker on No. 9 over the green, then took two swats to get it 10 feet past the hole. He two-putted for a 6.

In two holes, a potential 67 turned into a 72, and he went from the lead to four shots behind.

Expect that kind of topsy-turvy play over the next two days, when the U.S. Open figures to be up for grabs.

“I think Jack Nicklaus said it best,” Browne said. “The Open chooses you, you don’t choose it.”

Right now, Pinehurst isn’t particularly fond of anyone.

AP-ES-06-17-05 1949EDT


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