ERIN (Wisconsin) • Hideki Matsuyama exploded with a magnificent seven-under 65 to spearhead Asia's US Open challenge on Friday as Li Haotong carved a piece of history for China.
Matsuyama, who struggled with a 74 on Thursday, roared up the leaderboard with a front-nine birdie blitz to finish the day at 139.
With just two strokes separating the Japanese golfer from the leading group - Paul Casey (71), Brian Harman (70), Brooks Koepka (70) and Tommy Fleetwood (70) on 139 and Jamie Lovemark (69), Rickie Fowler (73), J.B. Holmes (69) on 138 - and no Major winners among the top 18 players on the leaderboard, he now looks as good a bet as any to challenge for the title today.
Matsuyama's chances are also boosted by the early exit of the three players above him in the world rankings - Dustin Johnson (75, 73), Rory McIlroy (78, 71) and Jason Day (79, 75) - who all failed to make the cut, the first time that the top three players in the world failed to qualify for weekend play at the US Open since the rankings were created in 1986.
"I'm very excited and very happy with the score," Matsuyama said. "There were a couple of loose swings out there, but, when you shoot 65, you can take those."
Matsuyama had seven birdies to go along with 11 pars. He missed an eight-foot putt on his last hole, which would have tied Johnny Miller's record of eight under par, which is the lowest score relative to par for a single round in the US Open.
Afterwards, Matsuyama was asked if he knew he had been close to tying the record. "No, I didn't," he answered. "I thought 63 was the number."
(selected; USA unless stated)
137 Paul Casey (Eng) 66 71, Brian Harman 67 70, Brooks Koepka 67 70, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) 67 70
138 Jamie Lovemark 69 69, Rickie Fowler 65 73, J.B. Holmes 69 69
139 Kim Si Woo (Kor) 69 70, Xander Schauffele 66 73, Cameron Champ a 70 69, Brandt Snedeker 70 69, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) 74 65
141 Sergio Garcia (Esp) 70 71
142 Ernie Els (Rsa) 70 72
144 Kevin Na 68 76, Li Haotong (Chn) 74 70, Jordan Spieth 73 71
146 Justin Rose (Eng) 72 74
147 Adam Scott (Aus) 72 75, Henrik Stenson (Swe) 74 73
148 Dustin Johnson 75 73
149 Rory McIlroy (Nir) 78 71
154 Jason Day (Aus) 79 75
The Japanese has never finished higher than tied for 10th at the US Open, but he is one of the hottest golfers in the world this season and has two victories on the PGA Tour.
"The biggest difference was I putted very well today," said Matsuyama, who could become only the second Asian-born man after South Korea Yang Yong Eun to win a Major.
Yang defeated Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship in 2009.
Elsewhere on Friday, Chinese golfing prodigy Li celebrated becoming the first player from China to make the cut at a Major.
The 21-year-old shot a 70 to finish with a level par 36-hole aggregate of 144, seven off the lead.
The other big Asian mover on Friday was South Korea's Kim Si Woo, who carded four birdies and two bogeys for a 70 which left him at 139.
It is the first time in three attempts that the 21-year-old from Seoul has progressed beyond the halfway stage of a Major after missing the cut at last year's PGA Championship and this year's Masters.
"The Players win gave a lot of confidence to me," said Kim, who is still riding high after a victory at The Players Championship last month. "I'm just going to try to do the same that I've done the last two days."
More than 40 golfers are under par at the midpoint of the tournament but, unless the rain forecast for the weekend greatly softens Erin Hills, the greens and fairways will begin to dry out. That could lead to typical Open weekend conditions, meaning putting surfaces that are devilish, confusing and unforgiving.
"I fully expect by Sunday that the conditions will be wicked," Casey said. "And I want it that way. That's how this tournament finds a champion."
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
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