The Open: Leaderboard shows thrilling race to come

Miguel Angel Jimenez plays out of a greenside bunker at the 18th on his way to taking the overnight lead at Muirfield yesterday. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Miguel Angel Jimenez plays out of a greenside bunker at the 18th on his way to taking the overnight lead at Muirfield yesterday. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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ONCE the dust had settled – and there’s plenty of it being kicked up in these bone-dry conditions on the East Lothian coast – we were left with a fascinating leaderboard.

Out in front at the halfway stage in the 142nd Open Championship is a 49-year-old pony-tailed Spaniard bidding to become the oldest winner in major history. Breathing down his neck are the world No 1, an on-form Scot, an Englishman putting better than ever and an Argentinean who has missed eight cuts in this event.

After much to-ing and fro-ing on a day when the Muirfield greens continued to wreak havoc despite having been hand-watered on Thursday night following criticism of the first-round course set-up, 49-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez is the man leading the way. Building on an opening 68 – he started the day in joint-second, a shot behind Zach Johnson – the Malaga man added a solid 71 to sit on three-under at the halfway stage.

He is one ahead of a four-strong chasing pack made up of Tiger Woods (71), Lee Westwood (68), Henrik Stenson (70) and Dustin Johnson (72), with the other Johnson (75) a further stroke back along with Martin Laird (71), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (74) and Angel Cabrera (72). Add six major champions – Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson – into the mix, all just four off the lead, and prepare to buckle yourself up as it’s going to be quite a weekend.

Originally predicted as being four-over, the cut mark kept rising as a fascinating day wore on. By the time the last putt had dropped just after 9pm, it had fallen at eight-over – the highest since Royal Birkdale in 2008, when it was a stroke higher. It still wasn’t high enough to save US Open champion Justin Rose (10-over), five-time champion Tom Watson (11-over), world No 2 Rory McIlroy (13-over) and two-time major winner Sir Nick Faldo (15-over). But it meant a reprieve for Scotland’s two most recent Claret Jug winners, Sandy Lyle (six-over) and Paul Lawrie (eight-over).

Jimenez is already the oldest winner in European Tour history, having claimed the 19th victory of his career at the age of 48 in last year’s Hong Kong Open. If he can stay out in front here, he will take over from Julius Boros, who won the 1968 USPGA Championship at 48, as the game’s oldest major champion.

“I’ve been 25 years on the Tour and had 19 victories. Now I would love a major on my career. Why not this one? I would love it,” he said. The man known as “The Mechanic” is feeling “relaxed” and reckons he can handle the pressure of being the man shot at on one of the biggest stages in the sport. “All parts of my game are consistent at the moment,” he reported. “I like to feel the pressure. I feel comfortable.”

On a day when the wind had swung round to the east, clubbing proved problematical. Woods, for instance, only had a short second shot into the 11th but came up well short. It cost him a frustrating bogey, but dinner tasted better after a 15-footer dropped at the last for a birdie-3. Five years after moving on to the 14-mark, could this be the weekend when he finally kickstarts his major career.

“I was having a hard time to get the ball close and then, on top of that, trying to hit the putts hard enough going up the hills,” said Woods afterwards. “Then, towards the middle part of my round, I lost the pace and was blowing it past the hole. But I finally got it fixed at the end.”

Westwood’s four-under-par effort was the pick of the day. Out in five-under 31, having birdied the first, second, fifth, eighth and ninth, the Englishman moved to six-under for the round and five-under for the tournament when he picked up another shot at the 12th. And, though he gave two of them back over the closing stretch, it still proved a rewarding day’s work.

So often one of the main focuses of attention coming into this event in recent years, Westwood has been flying under the radar on this occasion. He has been working on his short game with former Open champion Ian Baker-Finch and, just this week, has also linked up with Sean Foley, who helped Rose become a major winner last month and is now aiming to do likewise for the Worksop man.

“I was playing some great stuff and was pleased to be six-under through 12,” said Westwood. “(But) it was just getting harder as the holes progressed, tougher to score, tougher to get it close. It was a good round of golf and I’m putting nicely.”

The leader going into the final round of the Scottish Open last Sunday before seeing that title fall to Mickelson, Stenson is back in contention once more in the game’s cradle. “I’m taking all the hits on the chin and just moving on,” said the Swede, who has battled back bravely after dropping from fourth to around 230th in the world rankings.

“You know it’s going to be tough and sometimes you might not feel like it’s fair, but we’re all playing the same course. I’m happy with the patience and mental balance that I’ve managed to keep these first two days.”

Dustin Johnson overcame an adventurous front-nine 37 – it included an eagle, a birdie and three bogeys – to give himself a chance of atoning for his last-round collapse that let in Graeme McDowell in the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach. Namesake Zach, the 2007 Masters champion, was still out in front with five to play but then dropped four shots in a stumbling finish.

It left him alongside Cabrera, who had led at one point himself before dropping three shots over that same five-hole stretch at the finish, and Laird, who cemented a four-hole birdie burst from the ninth by holing good putts - one for a bogey and the other a par - at the last two holes.

There are plenty of players loitering with intent, including Clarke, who did well to hold it together after having a bucket and spade moment that cost him an at the sixth, and Mickelson, who started shakily when taking a 6 at the second and never really managed to fully fire up his engine but is still right in the mix.

Mild in comparison to the first day, comments about the course were still more colourful than the surfaces:

Brandt Snedeker: “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do to hit a green ... They need to put some water on it. Everything is dead ... You can’t stand up, you can slip. It’s just really, really firm. (How much of a grind is it?) Beyond anything I’ve ever played in.”

Ernie Els: “It’s brown, it’s bouncing all over the place ... There are two greens, 15 and 14, that are not very playable. They’re borderline.”

Ian Poulter: “They can’t soften the course up too much. We just need some sensible pins and it will be playable. It’s brutally difficult to get it anywhere near a range where you feel comfortable having a go at a putt from 15, 20, 40 feet. You’re on edge because you don’t want to roll it two foot past because two foot might be six foot, eight foot. It’s fun, in a sick way.”

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