Composed Spieth eases into pole position
Proven Major winner leads by two from Kuchar as McIlroy storms back into contention
Rules officials help remove a signpost to allow Rory McIlroy play a shot on the 15th hole during the second round of the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty
The answers to an examination aren’t always straightforward; and, on a summer’s day borrowed from the depths of winter, the manner in which Jordan Spieth worked his way around this links on the Lancashire coast in this 146th edition of the British Open provided an example of a wise old head placed on young shoulders.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
Spieth, only 23 years of age, but with a US Masters and a US Open already to his CV, moved a step closer towards claiming a Claret Jug to add to his collection. A second round 69 to add to his opening 65 enabled him to loosen the shackles of others to establish sole leadership at the 36-holes midpoint, with a total of six-under-par 134.
On a day not quite of carnage, but with sufficient turbulence to leave some players mentally battered and bruised, Spieth avoided any such disasters and also took advantage of some good fortune along the way. A chip-in par save, a couple of bombs on the greens, an eagle; it all contributed to some good shot-making but also a fortitude that never faltered.
Three of the four Irish players missed the cut, but there was further evidence that Rory McIlroy – the sole survivor – has regained some of his old steel and flair.
A second round 68 for 139 (four behind Spieth) moved the Northern Irishman up no fewer than 52 places, into a share of sixth.
“To be in after two days and be under-par for this championship after the way I started, I’m ecstatic with that,” said McIlroy, who rebounded from a disastrous opening six holes on Thursday when he was five-over to cover the last 27 holes in six-under and now in a position to play the role of pursuer.
For the other three Irish, there was only disappointment. Pádraig Harrington, champion here in 2008, needed to chip-in for birdie on the last to make the cut which fell on 145, five-over. His effort very nearly succeeded, but the ball stayed stubbornly above ground and his second successive 73 left him outside the mark.
Shane Lowry missed the cut for a third successive British Open, coming home on empty with back-to-back double-bogeys on the 13th and 14th contributing to the ruin.
His second round 78 –with 41 strokes on the homeward run – placed him on 150, five shots too many. And Darren Clarke, the 2011 champion, shot a 73 for 148 which continued his shocking streak of missed cuts this season.
Yet, for all those who struggled, and for the late-starters who had their waterproofs well and truly tested to the limit as heavy rainfall, which necessitated a break in play so that squeegees could be used to remove water from the greens, caused a suspension in play, there were those who showed there is always a way to beat the course and the elements.
Zach Johnson’s round of 66 was the best of the day, and moved him up 100 places to tied-21st.
With the wind shifting, the 13th hole – a Par 4 playing to an average of 4.70 for the day –took over from the sixth, traditionally the toughest hole of all on the course, as the most difficult.
“I think that’s kind of what we know about the Open and I think that’s what people enjoy about the British Open is watching the hard wind, the rain, the guys just trying to survive out there,” said Kuchar of how the elements affect links golf unlike any other event.
For Spieth, chewing gum as he negotiated the 18 holes as if one exam question after another to be completed and submitted, there was only forward momentum.
Especially so from the 10th, where, after missing the green with his third shot, Spieth chipped-in for a par. There followed birdies on the 11th and 12th and, after a bogey on the 13th, that eagle on the Par 5 15th which moved him to seven-under and three clear. A dropped shot on the 16th reduced the margin. But he was a happy man when it was all done.
“Anytime you’re in the last group on a weekend in the Major, and this is, I think probably a dozen times I’ve had at least a share of the lead in a Major championship, you get nervous.
“And I’ll be feeling it this weekend a bit. But I enjoy it because, as long as I approach it positively and recognise that this is what you want to feel because you’re in a position you want to be in, then the easier it is to hit solid shots and to create solid rounds,” said Spieth.
Ominously for those in pursuit, the statistics of finishing the job are in Spieth’s favour: on the six occasions he has led after 36-holes, he has won five of them. The exception was the 2016 Masters. A little bit of hope so for those trying to chase him down.