Jordan Spieth of the United States walks along the 18th fairway and shelters from the rain during the second round of the British Open Golf Championship, at Royal Birkdale, Southport, England, Friday July 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) (Peter Morrison / AP)
SOUTHPORT, England – It was a scene repeated time and again Friday as winds off the Irish Sea whipped across Royal Birkdale, buffeting the British Open grandstands and turning would-be solid shots into physics-defying banana balls. A player would hit his tee shot, watch it bend vigorously to the right or left, then shoot his arm out to the side to warn spectators a ball was coming their way.
With gusts of 30-plus mph, and sheets of rain in the late afternoon, the tournament’s second round was closer to round fore.
Jordan Spieth shot a 1-under-par 69 to hang onto what had been a three-way lead. He is at 6 under, two strokes better than fellow American Matt Kuchar. Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter are tied for third heading into the weekend at 3 under.
Spieth, who played in the afternoon, said he was “very satisfied” to be leading at this point and he would have gladly stayed on the couch and accepted even par for the day if he could have. He wound up doing one better.
“So not on the good end of the draw but we seem to have grinded it out,” he said. “I don’t know if we’d be in any better score if I was on the other side of the draw. You just don’t know where your breaks fall and where they don’t.”
There were 39 players under par to begin the day, and just nine to end it. Ten players finished Friday at even par. Play was suspended for 10 minutes at 5:30 p.m. local time because of heavy rain.
“A good day to sit at home and watch a movie,” said Kevin Na, whose 68 and 75 put him at plus-3 in a field where the cut was plus-5 or better.
Scotsman Martin Laird, whose score ballooned from 68 on Thursday to 79 on Friday, missed the cut.
“With this wind,” he said, “this golf course is just a beast.”
Somehow, Kuchar tamed the beast – or at least survived it. He was in a three-way tie for first at 5 under after the opening round, then took a baby step backward with a 1-over 71 in the second, finishing his round by midday before the really nasty stuff in the afternoon, when at times spectators had to hold their umbrellas sideways to stay dry.
“I think that’s one of the cool things over here, whether it’s Thursday or Friday, whatever your morning round is, getting to go back to the room, put on the TV and watch the guys play in the afternoon, and particularly in tough conditions,” said Kuchar, who twice dropped to 6 under Friday but gave those strokes back with bogeys.
“What stood out to me the 12th hole, it was a par 3,” Kuchar said. “I think it was playing about 162 yards today. Wind was in off the left. I pulled 5-iron. And there’s a hill right of the green with nasty, weedy grass that you just don’t want to be in. So I must have aimed 30 yards left of the pin into the crowd, hit a shot, started at the crowd, and stayed at the crowd for a long time before finally the last, I’d say, 20 yards started drifting over, and ended up in the middle of the green.”
Two putts, and par.
Not everyone was able to compensate for the wind with such aplomb. There were the rare exceptions, such as Zach Johnson shooting a 66, but there were blue (bogey) and dark blue (double bogey) numbers all over the scoreboard. Phil Mickelson, looking to scramble back after a disappointing opening round, went birdie, par, triple-bogey, birdie – underscoring the spin-the-wheel randomness of the day – before his round unraveled with six bogeys on the back nine.
“It’s just one of those things where if it starts going bad in these conditions, it’s just going to go bad,” said Mickelson, who finished at plus-10 for the tournament and missed the cut for the first time this year. “It’s not that big a deal. Unfortunately it’s the first cut I’ve missed this year and I missed it with flair.”
Rory McIroy, who won the British in 2014, was crashing in spectacular fashion Thursday when he opened by bogeying five of the first six holes. He clawed his way back, though, with four birdies on the back nine to finish at 1 over.
A turning point came after the sixth hole, when McIroy’s caddy, J.P. Fitzgerald spoke up with, “You’re Rory McIroy! What the … are you doing?”
“I said, `Yeah,’” McIroy said. “At that point I mumbled and said, `Whatever.’ But it did, it helped. It definitely helped. It kept me positive. So he did a great job.”
On Friday, he looked like the old McIroy again, with birdies on three of the first six holes. He cooled a bit on the back with a couple of bogeys, but added one final birdie to end the day at 1 under.
Poulter finished second in the Open here in 2008, but had not won a tournament since 2012, and nearly lost his PGA Tour card this year. He was sidelined for four months with a foot injury last year, and, having dropped out of the top 50, had to play his way into the tournament by winning one of three qualifying spots at Woburn, England.
The Englishman shot even par Friday to put him back near the top of the leaderboard at 3 under, and the fans showed their appreciation.
“It feels absolutely marvelous, it really does,” he said. “Walking up 18, just walking from greens to tees was really pretty special today. Huge galleries and they were really pulling for me. So it was really nice to be in position, keep churning out decent scores and keeping myself on the board.”
Poulter was especially touched that a young fan, maybe 5 or 6, followed him at the ropes for his entire match, braving the storm to watch him play.
“He was in a little yellow jacket, it was pouring down with rain, he didn’t have an umbrella, but with his dad,” Poulter said. “And he kept saying, `Come on, Poults. Come on, Poults.’ I mean, that’s nice.
“These fans are hardened fans to any kind of condition, and for them to stay out in those cold, windy, rainy conditions, it’s special. And they definitely help you along the way. Because it’s not easy out there right now.”