THEY had been broken in gently but now the world’s top players know exactly why Royal Aberdeen has a fearsome reputation. After Rory McIlroy’s course-record 64 and 400-yard plus drive on day one, the Balgownie course bit back with real venom.
With the wind switching 180 degrees to come out of the south-east, the back nine, which had been battered into submission by McIlroy and plenty others 24 hours earlier, became a scene of utter carnage. “Brutal” was a word being bandied about in just about every post-round interview.
The inward journey brought McIlroy to his knees, though, admittedly, there were signs from the outset that this was going to be another fraught Friday for him. It also left Russell Knox feeling battered and bruised, the leader at one point after two eagles in his first six holes covering the last six in eight-over.
Even though he found it “fun”, title-holder Phil Mickelson admitted it had been a tougher day than he’d perhaps been expecting in the countdown to his Claret Jug defence next week. “It was mentally draining and I’m a little concerned that it is taking up more energy than I would have liked ahead of next week,” confessed the American.
In the circumstances, a five-under-par 66 by Paul Waring was probably a better effort than McIlroy’s opening salvo. It moved the Englishman to one-under alongside Scott Jamieson, whose 67 was also praiseworthy.
With a hole to play, Ricardo Gonzalez was on course to take a two-shot cushion into the third round only for the Argentine to run up a double-bogey 6 after hitting his second into the gorse from the right rough and taking a penalty drop.
The resultant 71 for a six-under-par total slipped the 44 year old back into a tie for top spot, along with home challenger Marc Warren (69) and Swede Kristof Broberg (71), though English duo Justin Rose (68) and David Howell (70) are lurking ominously on five-under and four-under respectively.
Warren finished 3-3-3. It was a terrific thrust and made amends for dropped shots at the 14th and 15th. “I said to Ken, my caddie, that I was looking for a strong finish,” said the Glaswegian after signing for a 69. “To finish with three 3s is beyond my wildest dreams – a strong finish would have been level par in those conditions.”
He reckoned it was one of his best rounds on a links course and that’s from a man who shot a 64 at Gailes Links recently to secure an Open Championship spot next week.
“The course is tough anyway, without playing that back nine into that wind,” added the two-times European Tour winner. “In real terms, a 69 feels like something in the mid to low 60s. Standard scratch would probably be a lot higher than par today – by four or five shots. So I’m over the moon, especially finishing on a high like that.”
His birdie at the last was from 30 feet, having earlier rolled in one from around 70 feet at the 12th. The difference in clubbing from the opening day illustrated how difficult the back nine had become.
“The biggest difference was on 12,” said Warren. “Yesterday, the par-5 was something like a 2-iron and 7-iron. Today you weren’t getting close in two. I hit driver, 8-iron, 6-iron. Then, at the 13th, I hit 3-iron and lob wedge yesterday, driver and 4-iron today. And it’s a small green, so I was delighted to be on the middle in two.”
He, of course, has his history in this event. Two years ago, he led by three shots with four to play at Castle Stuart only to see the title agonisingly slip from his grasp.
“I have learned from what happened two years ago,” he insisted. “It would be a very romantic tale to have a Scottish winner and I’m delighted to be where I am after two rounds. But there will definitely be twists and turns over the weekend – it’s that kind of golf course.”
Joint-second with Gonzalez at the start, Broberg remained in contention with a battling 71. “I had to stay patient out there as it is so tough and the back nine is brutal,” said the 27 year old after a mixed bag that included four birdies and a double-bogey.
Rose made his significant thrust in the morning. A three-under-par 68, which contained four birdies and a solitary dropped shot, was a polished effort. “Today was a fun day,” he admitted afterwards. “It was an opposite wind to yesterday, which made it interesting.”
On the significantly tougher back nine, Rose was home in 34, while playing partner Stephen Gallacher went one better. According to the Scot, yesterday’s wind was the one that makes this course play at its toughest.
“I think this is the wind for how it’s meant to be played,” said Gallacher. “This is where the bunkers are placed, the way the architects designed it. Yesterday you were flipping it past all the bunkers.”
Rose added this event to his schedule after being disappointed with recent Open Championship performances. On this form, he is going to be a genuine Claret Jug contender at Hoylake next week.
“We are on a great golf course here and I’m enjoying every minute,” admitted the Englishman. “I am comfortable with my game and I am delighted where I have got to after 36 holes. It was a world of difference out there today. Yesterday, 15 was driveable but today it was tough and 14 was an absolute brute.”
He’s bidding for back-to-back wins, having landed the Quicken Loans National at Congressional a fortnight ago. “I have been feeling good for a while but, once you get across the finishing line and win, it gives you that extra confidence. Winning when I did gave me a good boost and I want to keep it rolling.”
Mickelson lost a ball in running up a double-bogey 6 at the 16th before dropping a shot at the last for the second day running. “It was tough and fun to play in those conditions – a real challenge,” he said after finishing with a 73 to sit on one-under.
“I hit a couple of loose shots that cost me four shots but I fought hard all day. I’m still within striking distance of the lead and a hot round tomorrow would get me in it for Sunday.”
Backing up Warren on the leaderboard is Banchory man Greig Hutcheon. Not for the first time, the Tartan Tour No 1 has stepped on to the European Tour and not been fazed in the slightest. He’s sitting in the top ten on two-under. “It is great for me, a player from the Tartan Tour, to make the cut and be involved at the weekend,” he beamed.
After his fightback, Gallacher is alongside both Jamieson and Craig Lee in joint-19th, while Knox, Alastair Forsyth, Martin Laird, David Drysdale, Scott Henry and Paul Lawrie are also still standing from the starting Scottish contingent.