The good news for Richie Ramsay is that he is right in contention at the halfway stage of the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale. The bad news is that he is chasing Jordan Spieth and the American looks in the mood to add the Claret Jug to his Masters and US Open victories two years ago.
On a day when the entire field was tested in either wet or windy conditions – both in the case of those out in the afternoon, when play was suspended for around ten minutes as some of the greens started to flood – Spieth showed his resolve on the Lancashire coast to stay out in front in the season’s third major.
Helped by a par-saving chip-in from through the back of the green at the tenth then a 35-foot eagle putt at the 15th, the 23-year-old American added a 69 to his opening 65 for a six-under-par total. He leads by two from compatriot Matt Kuchar (71), with US Open champion Brooks Koepka (70) and Englishman Ian Poulter, who finished runner-up here to Padraig Harrington in 2008, a shot further back in third.
Producing his best performance by far to date in a major, Ramsay is four shots behind Spieth in fifth, with 2014 winner Rory McIlroy also right in the mix after continuing his recovery from a nightmare start on Thursday with a 68 to sit in a group on one under par.
“Very satisfying,” said Spieth of his position. “It was a very solid day and I am pleased with my score. As I was watching the morning play on the TV, I would gladly have stayed on the couch and taken even par because of the weather forecast for the afternoon. My patience was a bit thin around the turn and that chip-in was massive.”
The world No 3 said he had been toughened up for tests like this by playing in similar conditions in the second round at Royal Troon 12 months ago. “That was the worst stuff I’ve ever played in,” he admitted. “From 14 in, it was sheets of sideways rain – it was brutal. Today wasn’t as bad as we expected, but it was important playing in that weather last year.”
Continuing to reap the rewards of having used last week’s Scottish Open to get himself ready for this test, Kuchar chipped in at the third before holing from 35 feet at the fourth in an early burst as he added a 71 to his opening 65. It had been another polished performance from the 39-year-old until he dropped shots at both the 16th and 18th after finding sand on each occasion. He is clearly enjoying this test but doesn’t think it’s the toughest on the rota. “I find Carnoustie to be hardest,” said Kuchar of next year’s venue.
To the delight of the English fans, Poulter maintained his recent resurgence with a solid effort, deviating from par just twice as the wind swung round to an opposite direction from Thursday and made every hole feel as though it was a crosswind. “The large confidence tank that was empty a few months ago is starting to fill up – and I like when it fills up,” said the 41-year-old, who had to qualify for this event. “I play some of my best golf when I feel confident and I’m excited for this weekend. I can’t wait.”
Playing with Kuchar in the first two rounds helped bring out the best in Ramsay, who sees lots of similarities between the American and himself in terms of their attributes. Kuchar is renowned for his ability to grind out scores and Ramsay does a pretty good job himself in that respect. The Scot hardly put a foot wrong in carding a 70, which saw him open with 12 straight pars before cancelling out one bogey by rolling in a 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th.
“It was some of the best golf I’ve played this year, maybe in a few years,” said the 34-year-old, who was down in 341st in the world a fortnight ago before climbing to 169th on the back of sharing second spot in the Irish Open at Portstewart, where he closed with a 65. “My ball-striking, especially with the irons, was just exceptional today.”
He is now heading into uncharted territory in a major. “I’ve kind of gone off kilter when I’ve gotten into contention, and I just need to stick to my gameplan,” added Ramsay, who lives in Edinburgh and is attached to The Renaissance Club in East Lothian. “My mission statement is to be the best I can be. I did that today very well and I’ll try to do that tomorrow. I will try and believe and be as confident as possible.”
Comfortably the best round of the day was a 66 from Zach Johnson as the 2015 winner bounced back brilliantly from his opening 75. The 41-year-old American, who is playing with a replacement driver after cracking his old one on Tuesday, made his move up the leaderboard on the back of five birdies. “For 18 holes in a major, this one is top five but Monday at St Andrews [where he closed with a 66 before winning a play-off] was probably better,” he said.
Sergio Garcia, the Masters champion, is relieved to still be involved in the event after injuring his shoulder after whacking a gorse bush with his club in anger following a poor pitch at the short fourth. “Sometimes you’re out there and you’re trying your hardest and, when you can’t do it, it gets a little frustrating. We’ve all had those moments,” said the Spaniard after carding a 69 to sit on two over.