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Pieters charges at US Open as early starters hit Winged Foot

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New York (AFP)

Belgium's Thomas Pieters opened with two birdies to seize the lead as challengers made early charges in Friday's second round of the US Open at Winged Foot.

Third-ranked Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, fired a five-under par 65 Thursday to seize a one-stroke lead after day one in the second major golf championship of a coronavirus-disrupted year.

Thomas, 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy were among the leaders with afternoon tee times on Friday at the Mamaroneck, New York, course.

That left Pieters, who opened on 66 and began Friday in the second group off the first tee, to lead a handful of morning contenders who launched their bid after a strong start.

Pieters dropped his approach to four feet on the opening hole and sank his birdie putt to quickly match Thomas for the lead at 5-under par.

At the par-3 third, Pieters holed a 25-foot par putt to keep his share of the lead, setting the stage for his seven-foot birdie putt on at the par-4 fifth which put him into the lead on 6-under.

The 28-year-old Belgian missed the cut in 2017 and 2019 in his only prior US Open starts.

Pieters managed his best result in 12 prior starts by sharing fourth in his 2017 Masters debut.

- 40-foot putt -

Also making an early move up the leaderboard in pursuit of his first major crown was Spain's Rafael Cabrera Bello, who began his round on the back nine with a sizzling putter.

The Spaniard sank a 40-foot birdie putt at the par-3 10th, rescued par from 11 feet at the par-4 11th, escaped a greenside bunker to hole a 10-foot par putt at the par-5 12th and added a 26-foot birdie putt at the par-3 13th.

That moved Cabrera Bello, who opened with a 68, to 4-under overall, one behind Thomas and two off the lead.

Bello managed his best major finish in 27 starts with a share of fourth at the 2017 British Open.

Thomas fired the lowest US Open round ever at Winged Foot on Thursday while Reed, who shot 66 that day, made a hole-in-one at the 165-yard par-3 seventh hole.

There were no spectators at the event as a coronavirus pandemic precaution, the deadly virus having delayed the event from its usual June date and sidelined Pieters until last month, when he finished third in his comeback event and boosted his confidence.

"I kind of knocked the rust off and came here with a bit of confidence because I'm hitting it well," said Pieters.

Among other early starters Friday, England's Lee Westwood was two-over through four holes, South African Louis Oosthuizen opened with a par and Matthew Wolff, the 2019 US college champion making his US Open debut, opened with a bogey.

Tiger Woods was set for an afternoon start alongside Thomas after opening on 73, the same score posted by world number one Dustin Johnson in round one. Both were looking at a fight to qualify for the weekend.

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