As the sun re-appeared in the afternoon on the Angus coast, overnight leader Kevin Kisner had moved two clear of the field before dumping his second shot at the last in the Barry Burn, costing him a double-bogey 6. On six-under, he shares top spot at halfway with Johnson. Fleetwood is one back along with Pat Perez and Xander Schauffele, with McIlroy on four-under along with Matt Kuchar, second to Jordan Spieth at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago, as well as his compatriot, Tony Finau, and also South African pair Eric Van Rooyen and Zander Lombard.
McIlroy, who carded four birdies in signing for a second successive 69, is a man on a mission heading into the weekend after feeling that he didn’t get the job finished off when heading into contention on the final day of this year’s Masters – the title he needs to become just the sixth player to complete a career grand slam – due to his mindset.
“Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve again for me, so I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, that I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving it my best,” said the 2014 winner of how he intends going about his business here over the final two rounds.
“I’ve been a little bit too careful and tentative in these big tournaments. This week, one of my main thoughts is just to let it go. I’d rather give myself a chance by feeling I’m trying 100 per cent than sort of holding back and maybe not giving myself the opportunity to do well. I’ve maybe been focusing on the results too much. The result is just the by-product of all the little things you do to lead up to that. You know, I’ve sometimes forgotten that, and just need to get back in that mindset.”
In dreich conditions, McIlroy had to abandon his aggressive tactics for the day. “It was damp and cold enough that the gameplan I was trying to adapt by hitting driver a lot, I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “All the bunkers were in play. And then, with it being wet, the spin rate goes right up on the driver and it could start to go either way.
“So, a lot more irons off tees and a lot more conservative, but it ended up being the same score. So I’m pretty pleased with that. Under those conditions, I would have taken that score today going out.”
It’s a case of so far, so good for the four-time major winner. He’d love to be the defending champion when the event returns to his native Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951 at Royal Portrush in 12 months’ time. He’s not going to make the mistake of getting ahead of himself, though.
“It was definitely a day where, don’t shoot yourself out of the tournament instead of trying to press on and build a lead or get an advantage,” he added. “I got a few good up-and-downs when I needed to today. On a day like that, you just need to scramble and keep yourself in it. I’m in a great position going into the third day.”
So, too, is Fleetwood after the 27-year-old Englishman confirmed his liking for this place with an effort that was just as impressive as the 63 he shot in the Dunhill Links Championship last October to claim the course record.
Facing a test way more difficult than that day, his six-under-par effort was not only bogey-free but also the best score over the first two circuits.
“I don’t know,” he replied to being asked if this had perhaps been a better performance than that 63. “I think conditions-wise, yeah, it was tough. You’re also in The Open. It’s no course record, but it will do for today. It was a very strong round of golf and I hit a lot of good golf shots.” A late-night session on the range with his coach, Alan Thompson, was to thank for that.
“I struggled yesterday tee to green and it was hard work really to just get in. It was a good one-over in the end, even though I bogeyed 16 and 17. I had some time on the range last night and came out today and just did a lot better, basically. Put it in position all day and holed a few putts in tough conditions.”
Fleetwood, last year’s Race to Dubai winner, signed off with a 63 to finish second behind Brooks Koepka in the US Open at Shinnecock Hills a few weeks back. Now he’s got the Claret Jug in his sights. “With that great result in the US Open comes expectation, and you have to learn to manage it and handle it,” he acknowledged. “I can’t lie about it. If I could pick one tournament in my life to win, it would be The Open. I’ve never been anywhere near before and winning would be very special.”
For a man who has not only claimed this prize but also has 11 top-25 finishes to his name, Johnson is looking good value for a 66-1 shot before the off. The 42-year-old recovered from an opening bogey to card five birdies in his 67.
“I hit my worst shot of the day – a low hook – on the first tee box, which was awful,” he said. “Deserved a bogey, but it wasn’t a bad bogey, considering where I hit my tee shot. To then birdie No 3 was nice, just in the sense that it kind of gave me a little momentum. Two quality shots, good putt and off I went from there.”
Kisner, who started the day with a one-shot lead after his opening 65, looked as though he’d been heading into the weekend with a bigger cushion after moving to eight-under for the tournament only to join that long list of players who have come to grief at the 18th hole here.
He only had an 8-iron for his second shot but it didn’t come out as he thought it would from the light rough an ended up in the Barry Burn.
“I got off to the start I wanted to and got it to where I wanted to be,” said the 34-year-old. “Obviously made double on the last hole. Didn’t think I would hit that in the burn with an 8- iron but just didn’t come out the way I saw it.
“I hit a lot of great putts coming down the stretch. Probably could have made two or three more, but they all lipped out. I love where my putter is and love my position going into the weekend.”
Others no doubt feeling content at the halfway juncture in this Claret Jug joust include defending champion Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, both sitting just three off the lead,
Spieth came home in 33, three-under, while Fowler made his move with a strong start that produced three birdies in the first four holes.