McDowell mounts Pebble Beach charge

World No 1 Woods continues to struggle with Northern Irishman among the leaders while South African Els puts in a strong round.

Standing in a sand trap, Scott Verplank poked his head up over the high, grassy ridge that blocked his view of the 14th green as he tried to get a feel for the pin placement on what has turned into one of the trickiest holes at the US Open. It's a frustrating spot on Pebble Beach's back nine. The hole of doom, to do it proper justice.

"If you're in that bunker, you're not seeing much, you're just seeing the rescue," Verplank said. "It's tough." Verplank wound up with a double-bogey on the par-5, 523-yard hole Thursday. It caused Yuta Ikeda absolute fits, too. And many others. Golfers often have to contend with hitting into the wind on No. 14. This is one hole that everybody in the 156-man field would probably prefer to scratch from the course altogether if they could.

No 14 has been brutal for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am held here each February - and for the US Open, a major, it's tougher still. The rolling green sits atop a plateau and gives golfers very few spots to safely place the ball. There's often the risk of watching a shot trickle off the green and back down the slope, sometimes right back to a player's feet. That was the case for Paul Casey on Friday morning.

"We've talked about that all week, it's probably the hardest third shot in all of golf," Tiger Woods said. "The way the green is right now, during AT&T it's no big deal, it's just going to plug up there, but not right now. It's very tricky." Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell will spearhead the European challenge at the 110th US Open today after an impressive second round continued in California yesterday.

Recently crowned Celtic Manor Wales Open champion McDowell had started the day on level par at Pebble Beach Golf Links but the finished three under after carding a 68. Lee Westwood finished three over while Ernie Els is one under after an impressive round that saw him finished three under. Woods, meanwhile, finished four over. Alternately struggling with his woods, irons and his putter on a cloudy, windy day on the Monterey Peninsula, missed an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 18, then made the turn and made bogeys on Nos. 2 and 3 to balloon to 5 over.

Early on, it looked like it would be a better day for the world's top-ranked player, who won by 15 here a decade ago, the last time the US Open came to Pebble. He made his first birdie of the tournament without even using his putter, chipping in on No. 11, then made a more traditional one after knocking his approach to six feet on No. 14. But he made bogeys on both the par-3s on the back nine, missed the makable birdie try on 18 and slammed his club back into his bag on No. 2 when he stood in a fairway bunker, his ball positioned under a high lip, and realized he'd have to lay up instead of going for the green. He hit a wild drive on No 3 to set up another bogey, and even on a day where most of the players were struggling, he was falling out of shouting distance from the leader.

Woods had heard US Open officials play down his criticism of their championship set-up, in which he had described the Pebble Beach greens last night as "bouncy" and "awful" following his opening, three-over-par 74.

* Agencies