By Jeff Babineau, Golfweek

SAN FRANCISCO – A generation ago, when you thought about players whose games were built for the U.S. Open, the names rolled off the tongue. You had Hale Irwin. Curtis Strange. Payne Stewart. Oh, and there was that Nicklaus guy, too.

They shared common traits, which included driving it on a string and showing some fortitude. Jack Nicklaus, a four-time U.S. Open champion, was lucky enough to have a high ball in the arsenal, too, which always came in handy when greens became firmer than a granite tabletop.

Sturdy U.S. Open players of modern times? Let’s see. Tiger Woods and, um, well . . . not such a long, glorious list behind him.

Sure, there are guys who pop their heads into contention every now and again, but very few manage to do it with any level of true consistency. A Rory McIlroy, for instance, now boasts a U.S. record that reads: 10th-Cut-Win-Cut. He hits it long and he can hit it high, but does that record show a young man who will be a force every June? He’ll have to prove that.

Fans at the 112th U.S. Open the past two days were treated to something special: A threesome that included two men who would be on anyone’s short list of most dependable U.S. Open players of this era, and a third player who, with a little more mental strength, could join them.

Graeme McDowell, who won this championship the last time it was staged in Northern Cal (Pebble Beach, 2010), never has missed a cut in seven U.S. Open starts. He said being successful at an Open means adopting a simple formula: “You’ve got to play Jim Furyk golf.”

McDowell didn’t have to look very far to see the original model. McDowell (72) and Furyk (69), the 2003 U.S. Open champion, played alongside each other in a group that also included Sergio Garcia, a guy who has five top-12 finishes in this championship despite not always exhibiting the patience of his fellow competitors.

Of Furyk, McDowell said, “He doesn’t take chances he doesn’t have to take on. He gets it back in the fairways (when he drives it in the rough). He putts well. Holes out well. Takes his chances when it comes. And that’s my type of golf as well.”

For two days on a golf course that has been a chamber of horrors for others, Furyk and McDowell have dutifully mapped their way around Olympic Club’s Lake Course, and both will enter the weekend with a decent shot to add a second Open title. Furyk stands at 1 under 139; McDowell is two shots behind him. (Garcia shot 71 and stands 4 over, very much in the mix.)

We’ll avoid using the word “plodders” in referring to Furyk and McDowell because McDowell said he finds the term disrespectful. That’s fine. Getting into contention at a U.S. Open certainly goes beyond slogging through thick mud.

On Friday, it was almost as if Furyk and McDowell were playing chess while most of the field played checkers. The only “trouble” encountered was when McDowell dropped three shots in his last four holes. To watch them is to see nothing that’s otherworldly spectacular, but it’s a display of wise shots and calculated misses that simply remove big numbers from entering the equation. Here, blue collar works.

U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis said he wanted Friday’s course conditions to mimic those of Thursday, when Olympic seemed to flip a switch and suddenly get firm and fast on the field. In that regard, the course doled out the same amount of misery. Even with the usual harsh winds all but lying down, scoring was quite difficult, and red numbers were few.

“My day was as equally unenjoyable as yesterday,” quipped McDowell. “…To be honest with you, if you’d have offered me 1 over par starting on the first tee yesterday, having seen what I saw yesterday morning, I probably would have snapped your arm off for it.”

Furyk is a gritty, fairways-and-greens machine who is competing in his 18th Open. At age 42, who knows how many times he’ll have such a good opportunity to win his national championship. This is the first time he’s been in the real heat of the weekend at an Open since it was played in his home state of Pennsylvania, at Oakmont, five years ago. That year he tied for second, his second consecutive runner-up finish.

The only thing about the first two days that soured him were a couple of poor holes with the putter coming in late Thursday in his first round. Otherwise, he said he was “obviously happy,” which is a phrase not heard all too frequently at an Open. Furyk’s tee-to-green game is usually very steady, and success can rely heavily on the short stick, which hasn’t been his strongest suit the past couple seasons. Here at Olympic, he seems to be putting quite well. He ran in a 30-foot putt from off the front of No. 3 for a birdie and nearly holing a similar putt to try to save par at the fifth hole, where an errant drive was swatted down by a tree.

It helps at Olympic that a player needs to work the ball both ways off the tee, which Furyk can do, and he’s never going to stray too far off the slim ribbon fairways. At the U.S. Open, steady often wins the race.

“I guess you have to realize at the U.S. Open that par is a really good score, and you’re going to make some bogeys,” Furyk said. “And when I’m patient and I’m playing well, I’ve had some success here. … Mentally you have to be in a good frame of mind, and physically you have to be on top of a lot of areas of your game. But keeping the ball in the fairway is of the utmost importance. When I playing well, I do a good job of those things.”

Many big names already have departed Olympic. And two modern-day U.S. Open stalwarts named Furyk and McDowell are right where they want to be. Again.

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  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson walk off the 18th green after the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods reacts after making a par putt on the 18th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods hits a shot on the 17th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson shake hands after the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods putts on the 18th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Phil Mickelson reacts after making a birdie putt on the 18th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods makes his way to the 17th green during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    David Toms watches his putt on the 15th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Davis Love III peers out of a bunker on the 15th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods hits a drive on the 13th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods tests the wind on the 11th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Amateur Beau Hossler watches a shot while playing the fifth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Jim Furyk acknowledges the crowd after saving par on the fourth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods reacts to his drive on the ninth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. At right is Bubba Watson.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Andy Zhang walks off the 18th green during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Amateur Beau Hossler hits out of the rough on the fourth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Tiger Woods reacts after making a birdie on the 10th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Amateur Beau Hossler hits off the third tee during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Amateur Beau Hossler hits out of a bunker on the second hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • U.S. Open 2012, Round 2

    Amateur Beau Hossler hits a shot on the second hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

  • Amateur Beau Hossler walks off the second tee during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Amateur Beau Hossler waves after making a birdie on the first hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Michael Thompson walks off the 18th green during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Amateur Beau Hossler makes his way up the 18th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Fans wait for Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson to hit to the eighth green during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Tiger Woods jumps out of a bunker on the seventh hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Tiger Woods looks at the pin on the seventh hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

  • Tiger Woods makes his way toward the seventh green during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson look over putts on the first green during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Tiger Woods drops his club after a shot on the sixth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Phil Mickelson hits a drive on the sixth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Bubba Watson hits out of a bunker on the fifth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Bubba Watson reacts to an errant tee shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play the fourth hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Jim Furyk tips his hat after the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Luke Donald, of England, shakes hands with Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, after the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Jim Furyk is congratulated by his caddie Mike 'Fluff' Cowan after the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Michael Thompson reacts after missing a birdie putt on the 10th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Friday, June 15, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)