Even Sir Nick Faldo, who’s seen it all over the years, was almost lost for superlatives.
‘What a Cinderella story this is!’ the Englishman finally exclaimed, as his 48 year old countryman Richard Bland, playing in his first US Open since 2009, took the early second round lead yesterday in the 121st edition.
Nothing underlines the extraordinary nature of the Cinderella Man’s performance quite like the fact that no-one of Bland’s age has been in the top ten at halfway in the game’s toughest major – never mind leading – since American Fred Funk in 2004.
A 400-1 shot at the start of the week, Bland is playing in just his fourth major, in four different decades.
Richard Bland (above) took the early second round lead on Friday in the 121st edition
Here alongside the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean, the years have rolled away for the man from Southampton as he upstaged the likes of Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and world number one Dustin Johnson.
Taking advantage of ideal morning conditions, he assembled arguably the finest round of his long career, a four under par 67 and a five under par total to be in one of the final groups for the third round today.
In the second round he was watched by about 20 souls. This afternoon, there will be thousands of curious San Diegans, all keen to learn more about the man they’d never heard of until a month ago.
‘This is what I dreamed about when I was sitting at home watching all those majors over the years,’ said Bland.
The 48-year-old countryman, Bland, is currently playing his first US Open since 2009
‘I’m a golf fan at heart and so I’d watch the Masters every year. I dearly hope I can keep this form going and get there next time or the year after. As for what’s happening here, what an experience it is going to be over the weekend. Anytime you’re leading a major you’ve got to be feeling over the moon.’
It all changed for Bland at the British Masters at The Belfry, of course, where he claimed the first victory of his pro career at the 478th attempt to earn his spot in this event.
In an interview with Sportsmail in the build-up, he talked about how he hoped that the course would be set-up in classic US Open style, and that he wasn’t travelling 6,000 miles to make up the numbers.
He certainly got his wish in the first instance, not to mention underlining his ambition in spectacular fashion. Talk about a California dreamland.
And here’s an eerie stat to keep you awake when he goes out late this evening. Bland is currently 115th in the world – which just happens to be exactly the same mark as Phil Mickelson when he completed his own miracle at the USPGA Championship last month at the age of 50.
A 400-1 shot at the start of the week, he is playing in his fourth major in four different decades
‘It’s only natural that your mind is going to wander ahead and take in what could happen,’ said Bland. ‘But I only need to look down at the leaderboard to get a reality check. There’s a lot of players with more ability and a lot more major experience than myself.’
Two such men with a vast amount of Grand Slam savvy are right behind him. Consistent South African Louis Oosthuizen, winner of the 2010 Open at St Andrews and runner-up in no fewer than six majors – including last month at Kiawah – is only a stroke behind after rounds of 67, 71. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, now 42, is only a couple of shots back.
No wonder Faldo was so impressed with Bland. For 36 holes, he played the game in a manner eerily reminiscent of the six-time major champion.
Bland’s ball speed is 25mph slower than DeChambeau’s – equating to a difference of more than 50 yards off the tee- but he’s hit fairways and showed expert course management skills.
On a day when Dustin Johnson (above) had four bogeys in a row at one point, Bland simply outplayed everyone in his wave of the draw with no fewer than seven birdies
Bland (above) utilised the conditions with a four under par 67 and a five under par total
There’s his Faldoesque intensity as well. On the par five 18th, his ninth hole, there were a couple of cackling Americans shouting noisily from outside the ropes. Bland never heard them. Never looked over at them. He played his wedge approach totally immersed in the challenge in front of him.
Even when Bland was in trouble, he showed his recovery gifts. In a greenside bunker at the first, he came within two inches of holing his sand shot for the second day running.
A birdie at the 6th took him to almost unheard of territory on this course of six under par. At the 8th however, he was unlucky when his tee shot finished in a fried egg lie in a greenside bunker, and he was unable to get it close. A par at the 9th, however, completed an amazing day.
How on earth can it have taken him so long to reach this elite level? Let’s just enjoy the fact he made it in the end.
As it stands, Bland’s ball speed is 25mph slower than Bryson DeChambeau’s (above)
Playing two groups behind, defending champion DeChambeau recovered dramatically from two bogeys in his first three holes. A birdie at the par five 13th – his fourth hole – changed everything for the mercurial Mad Scientist.
He birdied the 16th, holed a 20ft for an eagle at the 18th and birdied the first. From a possible missed cut to back in contention, just like that. The 27-year-old finished with a 69 to trail five shots behind Bland.
Lee Westwood, in his first tournament as a newly-married man, made it safely through with a 72 for one over. Playing partner Paul Casey finished on four over — bang on the predicted cut mark.