Sandwich, England – Having missed the cut in the Masters and U.S. Open earlier this year, Peter Uihlein, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, might have been inclined to feel a sense of satisfaction or relief at finally earning a weekend pass in a major championship.
Uihlein, 21, shot his second straight 1-over-par 71 Friday at the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s thanks mainly to a burst of birdies early and a steady back nine after a mid-round stumble. And while he was satisfied by the performance it wasn’t something that he didn’t expect of himself.
“I’ve played enough golf not to be content with making the cut,” said Uihlein after finishing 36 holes in 2-over 142, one better than the cutline. “That’s never really the goal of playing in a tournament.”
No, the goal is winning, and Uihlein has a fair shot at it, being only six strokes behind leader Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland and 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover. But the fact is that everyone who made the cut has a chance, given that only seven strokes separate the top two from those at the bottom, a bunching that was the product of a sun-drenched golf course playing extremely firm and fast.
Uihlein, of course, wore a smile that said he was definitely happy to be among those still in the tournament.
The Oklahoma State University All-American propelled himself onto the first page of the leaderboard at two under par thanks to a spurt of four birdies in five holes that started with a birdie at the third and a par save at the long par-4 fourth hole. He birdied No. 5 and then nearly eagled consecutive holes.
He almost copied Tom Watson’s ace from earlier in the day at the sixth, his chip 5-iron looking at the hole before coming to rest 3 feet away. Then at the par-5 seventh, after reaching the green in two, his 30-footer lipped out.
“I was very comfortable with what I was doing,” he said.
But the hard, rolling tundra of St. George’s can exact penalties, too. He bogeyed the eighth hole and the double-bogeyed No. 9 when he drove into a fairway bunker, chipped out sideways, and then hit onto the green only to three-putt from 20 feet.
He managed to right the ship, however, and made only one more bogey on the inward nine.
“That was a rite-of-passage moment for him,” said Uihlein’s father, Wally. “Things could have gotten away from him, but he was very steady, played very well, kept himself together.”
Rickie Fowler, a former Walker Cup and Oklahoma State University teammate, wasn’t surprised by Uihlein’s play at Royal St. George’s.
“Peter is good at controlling his ball flight and he's got a good short game,” said Fowler, who also made the cut with a 140 total after his second straight 70. “If you can control your golf ball and put yourself in position where you're going to be able to make a couple birdies … Peter can hit it long, he can hit it high if he needs to, but he has control of his golf ball, so I think that's why he can play well and likes to play links golf.”
Uihlein agreed that his tours around St. George’s were not unlike his experience last year at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Park, Wash., where the conditions were hard, dry and fast. Uihlein proved the to be the best at playing the bounces and rolls and thinking his way around a very difficult layout, one scheduled to host the 2015 U.S. Open.
“I would say that it’s kind of the same,” he said. “It feels like it is, anyway. You learn to forget what’s on the bottom of the club and flight your ball and try to get the feel of the shot, where to land it, gauge what it’s going to do. It’s the same type of golf in terms of how to play the shots.”
With the field bunched and inclement weather moving in, Uihlein had no game plan beyond seeing what the conditions would be and trying to adjust to them. He not only is within sight of the lead, but he only trails England’s Tom Lewis, the first-round co-leader and first amateur to lead a major since Mike Reid at the 1976 U.S. Open, by two strokes in the battle for low amateur honors.
“It’s a whole different kind of golf here. Very challenging and very unpredictable,” said Uihlein, who planned to dine Friday night at a Subway restaurant near where he and his parents are staying. “Anything can happen. We’re supposed to get some bad weather. But you still are going to have to hit all kinds of shots. I like that challenge. I like it a lot. We’ll see how it goes.”