BETHESDA, Md. -- All Phil Mickelson could do Friday was applaud.
After finally igniting a spark with back-to-back birdies on the sixth and seventh holes and hitting the fairway on No. 8 (instead of the bunker on No. 5 like he did there Thursday), Mickelson stood and watched as Rory McIlroy's ball slowly crept back toward the pin and fell into the cup for eagle to reach 10 under par in only 26 holes at Congressional Country Club.
Like everyone else standing along the gallery ropes, Mickelson was compelled to applaud the star of the show he had been watching from the front row for two days.
|U.S. Open: Day 2|
Rory McIlroy is doing a darned good imitation of what he watched Tiger Woods do during the 2000 U.S. Open. Read More >>
South Korea's Y.E. Yang in familiar territory in a major championship. Read >>
"It's impressive," said Mickelson of the 22-year-old McIlroy, who is playing like 24-year-old Tiger Woods through two rounds of the U.S. Open. "He's striking it flawlessly and putted great on the greens. His first two rounds were very impressive."
For Mickelson -- who turned 41 on Thursday -- it had to seem like deja vu all over again. He endured the entirety of the Tiger Woods era of domination, and now he's watching another young phenom stand in his way of winning the major title he covets the most after five runner-up finishes.
Mickelson started the second round nine strokes behind McIlroy after a wildly erratic opening round. The day before, Phil was almost gleeful that the toll had only been 74 strokes.
"It could have been 80," he said without a hint of hyperbole.
So on a benign morning with the greens as pristine and soft as possible after overnight rains, Mickelson had some ground to make up. Yet after going birdie-birdie-birdie on Nos. 6 through 8, Mickelson actually lost a stroke to the young Northern Irishman.
And McIlroy wasn't giving any ground the rest of the way. By the time they reached the 18th tee, Mickelson was 4 under for the day and the gap between he and the runaway leader had grown from nine to 12. They both doubled the treacherous 18th hole after flaring their drives off the tee and hitting their approaches into the pond surrounding the peninsula green.
The 2-under 69 performance left Mickelson frustrated to the point that he declined to answer more than two questions before disappearing into the cavernous Congressional clubhouse to do a forensic study of his game.
"It was a disappointing finish with that double," he said. "I'm still struggling even though I was able to shoot under par today. I'm still struggling with it. So rather than go work on it I'm going to go try to figure out what it is I need to work on first and then get back to the range."
The worst of Mickelson's troubles remain from the tee box. After making birdie on 14 underneath a scoreboard that had his name misspelled (Michelson), he sliced his driver off the 15th tee way left. His eyes bulged as he slumped back toward caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay, mouthing the words "Oh my god!"
After nine fairways Thursday, Mickelson missed six more Friday, with the margin of error decreasing as the round wore on.
The best news for Mickelson, if there is any, is he won't have to watch McIlroy doing everything right for the next two days.
Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for the Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com.