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Max enthusiasm: Bunched-up leaderboard has RMC poised for weekend fireworks show

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit Golf Club showed its teeth, and Joaquin Niemann and Tom Lewis — two men born more than 7,000 miles apart — showed theirs, in big, wide grins as co-leaders at the halfway point of a Rocket Mortgage Classic that may be damp, but has proven to be no wet rag.

Niemann and Lewis finished their second rounds Friday at 10 under, a shot better than a trio that included fan favorite Max Homa, and two better than eight more, including first-round leader Davis Thompson.

Joaquin Niemann of Chile drives on from the 16th tee during the second round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic golf tournament, Friday, July 2, 2021, at the Detroit Golf Club in Detroit.

Once the sun set on DGC after 36 holes, 45 players were within five strokes of the lead entering the holiday weekend, some huge names had just rallied late in their second rounds to make the cut, and the biggest of them all, Phil Mickelson — said he'd back in Detroit in 2022, after all.

"I'm in," Mickelson said of 2022, a day after he vowed not to return because of a Detroit News article about his gambling past that he didn't appreciate.

He's in the weekend, too, birdieing the 17th to get to the cut line of 3 under. Bubba Watson, another former Masters champion, also made birdie at 17 to get to 3 under, and stick around for two more days.

They'll start Saturday at the bottom of the leaderboard, but at least they'll start, good news for ticket sellers who lost defending champion Bryson DeChambeau to the cut.

ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC SCOREBOARD

Niemann, of Santiago, Chile, and Lewis, of Welwyn Garden City in the United Kingdom, have one PGA Tour win between them — and eight years.

Niemann is the better known, the 30th-ranked player in the world who's now made 21 of 22 cuts this season, with four top-10s and two-runner-up finishes. At 22, he's considered one of the game's young guns, expected to win a lot more than he has. And with performances like Thursday and Friday's, that, no doubt will happen. Niemann didn't make a bogey through his first 36 holes. He shot a 3-under 69 Friday, after a 65 on Thursday.

"I played great obviously," Niemann said of a second round that played nearly a stroke harder than the first for the field, because of the blustery wind. "I gave myself a lot of chances at the start and I didn't make birdie on the second or the third hole, but I know I'm playing good.

"So just give myself a chance for the weekend is always nice."

Tee times for Saturday's Round 3 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic

Niemann played the Rocket in 2019 and tied for fifth, but didn't play last year. He took a week off, instead, after playing the first three tournaments of the PGA Tour's restart from COVID-19.

The Rocket Mortgage Classic was the fourth tournament in the restart.

"I played two years ago and it was awesome," Niemann said. "It was one of my favorite tournaments. 

"The crowd is amazing, there's a lot of people here. Having them back here is nice."

Lewis, 30, has won twice on the European Tour, and once on the Korn Ferry Tour. He came into the week having missed half (11 of 22) of his PGA Tour cuts this year, with one top 10.

Tom Lewis looks at his putt on the eighth green.

But like so many who are playing the weekend, he also has found memories of Detroit. He tied for 12th last year at the Rocket, his second-best showing of the PGA Tour season.

Like Niemann, he also is bogey-free, making a 9-footer at the last hole Friday to keep that in tact.

"That was big," Lewis said after his 69,

As is the list of contenders entering the final 36 holes.

At 9 under were three, including Troy Merritt, Chris Kirk and Homa, a two-time PGA Tour winner who won this season at Riviera in L.A. — which has similarities to DGC, being an old classic with tree-lined fairways. The greens are more subtle there than here.

Homa made a 35-foot putt for birdie at the par-3 15th, snapping a streak of seven consecutive pars. (His group of Watson and Matthew Wolff went 2-2-2 on the hole, to the delight of a rowdy AREA 3-1-3 gallery.) It also touched off a streak of four birdies to finish off his 65, tied with Russell Knox for low round of the day. At the par-5 17th, he hit his approach way left of the green and over the grandstands. But a favorable drop led to a third straight birdie. Then at the 18th hole, Homa hit an 8 iron from 155 yards to 10 inches.

"Yeah, Joe (Greiner, caddie) said it best. He said it's a messed-up game," said Homa, who gained popularity among golf fans with his witty Twitter swing critiques. "When we made the putt on (15), he said it's a messed-up game we play because we've been feeling like the hole's a thimble. And you make one long one, and it starts to feel like a bucket."

At 8 under were Thompson, Knox, Pat Perez, Brandon Hagy, Cam Davis, Sean O'Hair, Kevin Kisner (third last year) and Richy Werenski.

Wolff, last year's runner-up, led a group at 7 under, and Ryan Brehm (Traverse City/Michigan State) was among another large group at 6 under.

Brehm shot a 5-under 67, and has made his first cut in his last eight tournaments. He's never been so happy to have to pay for more nights at a hotel — especially in his home state. He was one of four Michigan men in the field, and two (Flint's Willie Mack III) made the cut. Brian Stuard (Jackson/Oakland) missed by a stroke, and Jeff Roth (Plymouth/Boyne), the oldest player in the field, struggled to get it going all week.

On a day where the typically benign par 5s played tough and longer because of the wet conditions, Brehm made birdies on all four of them. And he also drove it into the greenside bunker at the 361-yard par-4 eighth, making birdie. He's one of the longest drivers on Tour, but not the not very accurate. Today, he was both.

He called it his best round in at least two years.

"I mean, just from top to bottom, I did everything pretty well," Brehm said. "There's definitely room for improvement. I don't want to set the bar too low for me, I think anything is possible.

"But it's definitely a step in the right direction."

Rickie Fowler, unofficial tournament host, was at 5 under, though it could've been better after he made birdie on four of his first eight holes, including a chip-in from the right greenside rough at the par-3 fifth. Jason Day slipped back to 4 under, and Patrick Reed joined his fellow Masters champions Mickelson and Watson in making the cut right on the number, at 3 under.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984