Weather splits field as ‘stress-free’ Phil Mickelson gets to 10 under

Henrik Stenson hot on American’s heels while Rory McIlroy stays in the hunt

A wickedly squally day on the Ayrshire coast tested the very fabric of not only the waterproofs but of players' mental fortitude as this 145th edition of the British Open sought to unearth a worthy champion, with Phil Mickelson reaching the 36-holes midpoint with one hand tentatively on the old Claret Jug.

Just a mild touch from Mickelson, though; not a firm grip, not at all. For, on a day which chopped and changed as if mimicking a whimsical child, the American's advantage was reduced to a mere stroke as Sweden's Henrik Stenson, as imposing as any marauding Viking warrior, made his presence felt most of all.

Stenson’s six-under-par 65 was the round of the day, moving him to 133, one shy of Mickelson who added a 69 to his stunning opening round 63 to move to 10 under. Others hung on for dear life, one of them Rory McIlroy who, playing in the worst of the conditions, stuck vigilantly to his task.

In the end, McIlroy – one of four Irish players to survive the midway cut – signed for a 71, for two-under 140, that left him positioned on the fringes of contention in tied-15th.


“I feel like it’s possible. There are 36 holes to go . . . I’ve given people head starts before and been able to win, and I’m just going to try to draw on those memories,” said the Northern Irishman, winner at Hoylake two years ago and unable to defend at St Andrews a year ago due to injury.

Pádraig Harrington (72 for 142), Darren Clarke (72 for 143) and Graeme McDowell (71 for 146) all made the cut, but Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne each missed out; unable to recover from the damage inflicted in their opening rounds.

As Lowry put it: "I played like Hulk Hogan yesterday and Ben Hogan today." Having contended in the US Open to the death last month, the Offalyman will be reduced to watching the outcome of this Major at home on television.

McIlroy was among those on the so-called wrong side of the draw. But he didn’t complain. On the 13th hole, when the squall was at its most severe and in conditions he described as “brutal,” McIlroy thought he’d hit his drive 30 yards left of the fairway, and possibly in gorse, only to walk up to find it in the middle of the fairway such was the strength of the wind in bringing it back. It was a wee break, even if he had a bogey there in a run of four bogeys in five holes. It was to be his last, as he knuckled down for the run home and claimed a birdie on the 16th in an act of defiance to the weather gods.

“I’m eight shots back. I’m trying to be as optimistic as I can, I guess. I can draw on memories of being in similar positions going into weekends and having won. But this is a little different. It’s the Open Championship and the conditions are a little tougher. But I’m optimistic. I feel like I’ve played well. I think that’s the great thing. It’s not as if I haven’t played well,” said McIlroy.

Indeed, McIlroy can draw on memories of past deeds. Like his comeback to win the Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow in 2010. His win in the BMW PGA at Wentworth in 2014. And his success in the USPGA at Valhalla in 2014. All were of the fightback variety. “I’ve been able to turn deficits into wins,” he said.

McIlroy wasn't the only one to roll up his sleeves and to fight hard. In his case, he stayed in contention. For others, it was for survival: Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Danny Willett were among those who got in to the weekend with nothing to spare, on the mark which fell at 146, four over.

There were no such concerns for Mickelson, who played what he described as “stress-free” golf. Using a metal clip to inelegantly tighten his cap so it wouldn’t blow away, Mickelson plotted his way around the course with all the maturity of a 46-year-old seeking to become the oldest winner of the Claret Jug.

Of that quest to claim a second career British Open, Mickelson refuted suggestions that age was any barrier. “The fact is that, from 10 years ago when I was playing my best golf, I am 25 lbs lighter. I’m in better shape. I’m physically stronger than I was and I feel better and am starting to play some of my top golf again. I don’t see why there’s any reason why I can’t continue, not just this week but for years to come.”

Mickelson again played majestically, frequently using his trusted 2-iron so that he could execute low shots off the tee that could escape the wind and to prevent the ball spinning so much. And, so in control of his game, the only concern came when his ball moved on the exposed 12th green as he removed the ball marker. There was no penalty, though.

As McIlroy acknowledged of Mickelson’s play, “It’s the best I’ve seen him play in a long, long time. His swing’s good. He’s got his ball flight under control. He seems like he’s putting well.”

Mickelson may be leading, but there are many others in position to win. Stenson is only one back, with Soren Kjeldsen and Keegan Bradley three behind.

For Stenson – his trusted 3-wood a favoured tool – there is, yet again, a chance to become the first Swede to win a Major title in the men’s game. “I’d say there’s been two or three Majors where I’ve been right up there. If I keep putting myself in position and knocking on the door, I hope I get a couple of good breaks at the right times.”

(Britain and Ireland unless stated)

8:25 Haydn Porteous (RSA)
8:35 Patton Kizzire (USA), Kodai Ichihara (Jpn)
8:45 Bubba Watson (USA), Danny Willett
8:55 Jordan Spieth (USA), Brandt Snedeker (USA)

9:05 Paul Lawrie, Jim Furyk (USA)
9:15 Kevin Chappell (USA), Harris English (USA)
9:25 Colin Montgomerie, Ryan Evans
9:35 James Hahn (USA), Graeme McDowell
9:45 Nicolas Colsaerts (Bel), Soomin Lee (Kor)
9:55 Justin Rose, Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)

10:10 Ryan Palmer (USA), Jon Rahm (Esp)
10:20 Luke Donald, Zander Lombard (Rsa)
10:30 Marco Dawson (USA), Scott Hend (Aus)
10:40 Branden Grace (Rsa), Justin Thomas (USA)
10:50 Daniel Summerhays (USA), Thomas Pieters (Bel)

11:0 Lee Westwood, Charley Hoffman (USA)
11:10 David Howell, Jason Day (Aus)
11:20 Darren Clarke, Marc Leishman (Aus)
11:30 Harold Varner III (USA), Miguel Angel Jimenez (Esp)
11:40 Mark O'Meara (USA), Ryan Moore (USA)
11:55 Andrew Sullivan, Greg Chalmers (Aus)

12:05 Matt Jones (Aus), Richard Sterne (Rsa)
12:15 Gary Woodland (USA), Steve Stricker (USA)
12:25 Jamie Donaldson, Pádraig Harrington
12:35 Alex Noren (Swe), Matthew Southgate
12:45 Yuta Ikeda (Jpn), Webb Simpson (USA)
12:55 Jason Dufner (USA), Adam Scott (Aus)

13:05 Russell Knox, Kevin Kisner (USA)
13:15 Rickie Fowler (USA), Tyrrell Hatton
13:25 Anirban Lahiri (Ind), Emiliano Grillo (Arg)
13:40 KT Kim (Kor), Rory McIlroy
13:50 Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Patrick Reed (USA)

14:00 Jim Herman (USA), JB Holmes (USA)
14:10 Dustin Johnson (USA), Francesco Molinari (Ita)
14:20 Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Esp), Martin Kaymer (Ger)
14:30 Matt Kuchar (USA), Kevin Na (USA)
14:40 Sergio Garcia (Spa), Andrew Johnston
14:50 Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Bill Haas (USA)

15:00 Tony Finau (USA), Zach Johnson (USA)
15:10 Keegan Bradley (USA), Soren Kjeldsen (Den)
15:20 Henrik Stenson (Swe), Phil Mickelson (USA)

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times