U.S. Open 2024: The big questions for the third round

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Fifteen-time major champion Tiger Woods won't be around for the weekend at the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 -- and world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler barely made it.

Sweden's Ludvig Åberg survived the fast and firm conditions and stifling heat to take the lead at 5 under, which is 1 stroke better than LIV Golf League captain Bryson DeChambeau, Belgium's Thomas Detry and Patrick Cantlay heading into the final 36 holes.

Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy -- trying to end a nearly 10-year drought without winning one -- is only 2 strokes behind, along with Tony Finau and France's Matthieu Pavon.

Woods, a three-time U.S. Open winner, missed the cut for the fourth time in his past five starts in the event. Scheffler looked like he might be headed home early, too, until the cut moved from 4 over to 5 over to keep him around.

Here's what to watch in the final 36 holes at Pinehurst No. 2:

Who do you trust the most heading into the weekend?

Mark Schlabach: I could easily go with McIlroy or Åberg, who are probably the most talented players among the leaders, or DeChambeau, who is brimming with confidence in his equipment and game.

But I'm going to go with Hideki Matsuyama, who is looking to win his second major championship after he captured his first at the 2021 Masters. He won against an elite field at the Genesis Invitational in February and is more than capable of doing it again.

Matsuyama has one of the best short games in the world -- he came into the week ranked first on tour in strokes gained: around the green (.761) and sixth in scrambling (68.4%).

If conditions are going to get more difficult, and Pinehurst No. 2 is going to get browner and firmer on the weekend, I'll trust the guy who knows how to get up and down from just about anywhere. While Matsuyama's putting has been inconsistent in the past, he picked up more than 3 strokes on the field in that statistic in the second round.

Paolo Uggetti: How about the most recent winner of a U.S. Open? It hasn't been that long since DeChambeau proved to be the best golfer in a 156-man field. So far this week, on a golf course that most people wouldn't have thought fit the smashmouth DeChambeau, he has played it to perfection.

DeChambeau has been patient and limited his mistakes. He hasn't been overly aggressive, and yet he has still used his length to his advantage. Even when he has carded bogeys, he has been able to bounce back with birdies quickly.

And when the moment has called for something other than steady golf, DeChambeau has responded. On both of his final holes Thursday and Friday, DeChambeau punctuated his rounds with a birdie -- a chip-in on the 18th in the first round and a dart on the ninth hole for a birdie in the second round.

For all of his well-known reputation as a bomber, DeChambeau has had a very balanced week with strong showings in his short game (plus-0.88 strokes gained on the field) and his putting, which he called a strength earlier this week (plus 1.02 strokes gained). It all adds up to a very sustainable formula that should withstand whatever the weekend brings.

Who needs to win the U.S. Open the most?

Schlabach: It has to be McIlroy, who has won all around the world over the past 10 years but hasn't captured a major championship in that time span. His last win in the big four came at the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, on Aug. 10, 2014. If he lifts a trophy on Sunday, it would end his 3,598-day drought of not winning one.

McIlroy did what he had to do in the first two rounds -- he didn't blow up, stayed close and is right there in contention again. He grabbed the co-lead at 5-under 65 in the first round, then took a small step back with a 2-over 72 in the second. He'll start the third round 2 shots behind Åberg.

McIlroy's putter will have to get hot again. In the second round, he led the field in strokes gained: off the tee (2.20), but lost nearly 2½ strokes on the greens. That has to change.

Since his last major championship win at Valhalla, McIlroy has finished in the top 10 of a major 20 times, the most of any player during that span. It's beyond time for him to get it done and win his fifth major.

Uggetti: After watching his friend Xander Schauffele finally reach the mountaintop in a major at last month's PGA Championship, Cantlay is now one of the best players in the world without that elusive major title.

On paper, Cantlay's career is as stellar as it can be without a major: eight career wins, a FedEx Cup title and over $45 million in career earnings. But there's a definite void in his résumé where a major should theoretically be. Cantlay has repeatedly faded at major championships and has never finished better than tied for 14th at a U.S. Open.

Coming out on top at this U.S. Open would not only give him that major, but it would also be an especially satisfying one at a course that does not resemble the kinds of setups that Cantlay usually thrives in. Pinehurst No. 2 hasn't been a birdiefest. Instead, it's been a grind, and should Cantlay be able to survive the gauntlet he will have deserved every bit of that trophy.

Can Scheffler get back into contention?

Schlabach: Even a John Deere doesn't start every once in a while. We've become so accustomed to Scheffler playing nearly flawlessly every week that it's stunning when he's not in the mix. Scheffler, who had won in five of his past eight starts, including his second victory at the Masters, looked out of sorts in the first two rounds. The world No. 1 golfer looked frustrated on the tee boxes and the greens.

Scheffler was erratic on the tee in the first 36 holes, finding 17 of 28 fairways. He hit 66.7% of greens and ranks ninth in strokes gained: approach (1.89) through two rounds. But his putting has again been a liability -- he lost 3.30 strokes to the field on the greens in the second round -- and his short game hasn't been great, either. He threw his putter in the air after missing a putt on Friday.

After posting a 4-over 74 on Friday, Scheffler made the cut on the number and will start the third round 10 strokes behind Åberg. That's too far back. Like we saw him do at the PGA Championship, maybe Scheffler can sneak into the top 15 or better.

Uggetti: I don't see it. Far be it from me to doubt the No. 1 player in the world, but Scheffler admitted it himself after Friday's round of 74: He didn't particularly prepare as well as he could have for this major and well, he's tired. He just had a kid, after all, and won yet another PGA Tour event.

"It definitely was a bit of a fatigue aspect," Scheffler said. "Playing poor golf is not fun, but I like the challenging aspect of it ... The unpredictability of the native areas maybe got to me a little bit."

There's no doubt in my mind that Scheffler will make a run at a top-10 finish, if not better. But to see him climb back into true contention while being 10 shots back at the start of the weekend feels just a bit far-fetched. Even for him.

Who was the biggest disappointment in the first two rounds?

Schlabach: It seemed that Justin Thomas had turned the corner with a tie for eighth at the PGA Championship, but perhaps that was more the product of him playing on a familiar course in his native Louisville. After missing the cut at the Masters in April, JT missed the cut at Pinehurst No. 2 -- he was 11 over after 36 holes.

It was the fifth time in his past seven starts in majors that Thomas missed the cut. Thomas was considered a sleeper by some at the U.S. Open because of his magical hands around the greens. But he couldn't hit the greens -- he was 155th in strokes gained: approach (-2.77) -- and continued to struggle to make putts. He was 137th in strokes gained: putting (-1.32) and needed 57 putts in two rounds.

Uggetti: I guess we should have expected it, but after seeing Viktor Hovland nearly win the PGA Championship at Valhalla, I expected him to make a serious move to contend at this year's U.S. Open. Hovland is back with his swing coach, Joe Mayo, who was on the grounds this week, and seemed to have figured something out with his swing that brought his game back to life.

Thursday's opening round of 78, however, proved otherwise. Hovland shot 2 under on Friday, but it remains unclear if his game is truly back in shape to compete at majors or whether he and Mayo need to go back to the drawing board or simply continue to tweak and adjust whatever needs to be fixed. Of note: Hovland lost nearly 2 strokes to the field with his short game this week, a part of his game that seemed to have improved.

It wasn't too long ago that Hovland was considered one of the best players in the world after winning the Tour Championship. Now, after his past two major performances, Hovland is likely somewhere in the middle -- not as bad as he showed Thursday, but perhaps not as good as he looked at the PGA.

Hovland has plenty of talent; the question is whether he'll be able to harness it into results befitting of it. Pinehurst might have been a step back, but it could have also been a necessary setback to make better strides in the future.

Can anyone over par make a move?

Schlabach: Reigning Open Championship winner Brian Harman had an interesting second round. After starting on the back nine, he was 5 over after carding a double bogey on No. 12 and back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15. But then he picked up birdies on Nos. 18, 1 and 5 to get back to 2 over after 36 holes.

Harman's iron play hasn't been great this season, but he's good around the greens, and his putter can get hot.

Uggetti: I'm throwing all caution to the wind and picking Sergio Garcia here. Has he been in form as of late, even on LIV? No. Has he contended in a major championship recently? Also no -- he has 10 missed cuts in majors the past five years.

Yet, despite all of that, Garcia has gone the extra mile and refused to be too proud to compete in local qualifying in order to continue to make appearances at the U.S. Open. Garcia has now gone through U.S. Open qualifying two years in a row and made it. And this year, he has taken that momentum and put himself at 1 under par and 4 shots behind the leader heading into the weekend.

Whether Garcia can sustain it feels less important than the fact that he's still trying to play well in these events, which is more than can be said for some of his fellow LIV members. What's more: Garcia started his week in Pinehurst by going 20 holes without a bogey. The last time he did that? The 2017 Masters, which he won.