THANKS to Mother Nature, it’s a bit of a guddle. Following a weather delay that lasted three hours and 14 minutes, 42 players were returning to the Old Course this morning to complete their second rounds in the 144th Open Championship. Until their cards are signed, the halfway picture won’t be clear.
When play eventually finished at close to 10pm – five-times winner Tom Watson played the last in the fading light as he said his farewell to the event – the tournament leader was still American Dustin Johnson, who’d picked up three shots in 13 holes to move to ten-under-par – five ahead of playing partner and Grand-Slam chasing compatriot Jordan Spieth. Also still to finish, Paul Lawrie is eight-under with six to play while Australian Jason Day is on the same mark as the Scot with seven to go.
Long finished, England’s Danny Willett had set the clubhouse target of nine-under, sitting two shots clear of home challenger Marc Warren, Americans Zach Johnson and Robert Streb and Australian Adam Scott.
With a whole host of big guns within a few shots of the lead, either out on the course or done and dusted after two rounds, this Claret Jug joust is shaping up nicely, though, with strong winds forecast for today, there may well be more gnawing of R&A teeth before the tournament is over.
Frustrating as yesterday’s morning’s Armageddon-esque conditions were, it was a bonus that play, having been suspended at 6.46am with the first group on the opening green, re-started at 10am. That was down to an incredible mopping-up operation by Gordon McKie, the St Andrews Links Trust course manager, and his team of 65 greenkeepers.
Willett, Warren and Zach Johnson all admitted they’d landed lucky. Instead of getting drookit, they had been able to return to their hotel rooms or, in Warren’s case, relax in the warmth and dry in his car. Once out on the course, they were soon jostling for the lead. They shared top spot at one point before Willett emerged in pole position on his own after tacking a 69 on to his opening 66. “Two really good solid rounds of golf,” said the 27-year-old from Sheffield of those efforts, both of which have included a last-hole birdie.
His Open record consists of two missed cuts and a top-15 at Muirfield in 2013. His stature has grown significantly, though, on the back of winning the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa at the start of the 2015 European Tour season then finishing third in the WGC -Cadillac Match Play in San Francisco. Put it this way, his peers won’t be surprised to see Willett in contention for his first major and, by the sounds of things, the man himself is ready to relish that opportunity.
“It’s a childhood dream to see your name at the top of the leaderboard in the Open and it’s a little bit surreal,” admitted Willett, who has been particularly pleased that much of his good work so far has been accomplished on the back nine, which he’s covered in two-under. “But I’m going to have to embrace it and get used to it because if you don’t like being there you’re going to have pretty tough weekend.”
Willett’s dad, Stephen, is a vicar; his Swedish mum, Elisabeth, is a maths teacher. She clearly has a sense of humour. “I just had a text message off my mum saying, ‘well done, you’ve made the cut,” he said, laughing. “That’s brought me straight back down to earth, bless her.”
Willett was on the same Great Britain & Ireland side as Rory McIlroy that lost to a star-studded American team in the 2007 Walker Cup. Willett, in fact, was the world No 1 amateur and looks back on a two-year college spell in the US as being pivotal in his golfing development. “When I went out there at 17, I was a little bit messy but came back bigger, stronger and a little bit more disciplined in everything I did,” he recalled.
Like Willett, Warren is heading into the weekend in a major in uncharted territory, at least in terms of proximity to the lead. He, too, however, has developed into a polished performer over the past couple of years. His mental toughness may have been questioned after letting a lead slip in the 2012 Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, but don’t be surprised if the 34-year-old Glaswegian knocks off something big before too long. He’s finished in the top 15 in the last two US PGA Championships, gave a good account of himself in last month’s US Open and is probably as close as a Scot will ever get to Fred Couples when it comes to looking relaxed on a golf course.
“It’s early days, but I’m really enjoying the atmosphere out there and relishing the opportunity ahead of me this weekend,” declared Warren, who closed with a 64 to finish fourth in the Scottish Open at Gullane last Sunday and has maintained that good form here with opening rounds of 68 and 69. “This is a situation everyone who’s played golf as a kid dreams about and to live out at least part of that dream is pretty cool. My game is in really good shape and, though I’m not experienced in this situation, I’ve won tournaments and feel totally at ease on this golf course.”
Judging by his comments earlier in the week, Johnson would probably prefer to be close to the lead in the world’s oldest major at Muirfield or Royal Lytham. However, the former Masters champion must surely be warming to the Old Course after following up a 66 on Thursday – his first sub-70 effort in six rounds here – with a solid 71. “I feel good about my position,” said Johnson, another to have birdied the 18th two days running. “I love the game over here and I love this tournament. If I play well, that’s just the icing on the cake because I just embrace the week.” It was suggested to the 39-year-old that he’d come here “under the radar” despite finishing a shot behind Spieth in the John Deere Classic last Sunday. Laughing, Johnson replied: “I’m always under the radar”.
Scott, of course, has a score to settle in this event after squandering a four-shot lead with four holes to play at Royal Lytham three years ago. A flawless 67 has set up an opportunity to make amends for that crushing disappointment and the 34-year-old from Adelaide is hoping to play the Road Hole in the final two rounds as he did yesterday.
“My drive was so pure and the shot I hit into the green was maybe one of the best shots I’ve ever played into 17,” said Scott. “I had 196 to the hole and about 176 to the front. I chipped a 4-iron, landing it about 160, and it ran up there perfectly.”
In one of the day’s final throes, former Scottish Open champion Luke Donald looked set to move within one of Willett until he finished bogey-bogey. His 70 was a strange effort, having started with an ugly double-bogey 6 but then including six birdies in the middle. Alongside him on six-under is Irish amateur Paul Dunne after a second 69. Having set out just before 6pm, there was no chance that Dustin Johnson, Spieth or Lawrie were going to get finished. Johnson led by two after getting to 11-under after ten holes. In the buffeting wind, he missed a short par putt at the 11th.
So did Spieth, who was becoming a bit frayed at the edges after that dropped him back to five-under. Both Americans had their woolly hats and mitts on by then to combat a distinct chill in the air.
More used to that, Lawrie was hanging in there. He was doing better than that, in fact. Six-under heading out, the 1999 winner had picked up two shots in 12 holes before heading off for his supper. At five-over for the tournament with the same number of holes to play, it wouldn’t be terribly tasty for Tiger Woods. Barring a miraculous finish this morning, a second successive missed cut in a major is on the cards. It will be back to the drawing board again before the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits next month.
All in all, it was quite a day. With Watson leaving the stage, an Open era is over. A new one is beckoning over the next couple of days – maybe even three depending on the weather.