Golf: Faldo forges course record with scintillating 63: The Open Championship: Defending champion lies a stroke ahead of Langer as Couples, Norman and Pavin prepare to pounce from two adrift

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The Independent Online
WHEN he walked down the 18th fairway the huge gallery gave him the sort of reception normally reserved for the champion on Sunday afternoon. Unashamedly patriotic - this is Royal St George's - perhaps they were staging a rehearsal for the final round tomorrow. Nick Faldo, who has won the Open Championship three times in the last six years, served notice that he is prepared for a tenacious defence when he established a course record of 63 in the second round yesterday.

It lowered Christy O'Connor Jnr's mark of 64, set here in 1985, by a stroke and also equalled the lowest individual round in the 122-year history of the championship. Faldo, victorious at Muirfield 12 months ago, prospered from one under par to eight under and he leads by one from Bernhard Langer and by two from Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Corey Pavin. It was a fabulous round and Faldo joins an exclusive club. Mark Hayes at Turnberry in 1977, Isao Aoki at Muirfield in 1980, Norman at Turnberry in 1986, Paul Broadhurst at St Andrews in 1990 and Jodie Mudd at Royal Birkdale in 1991 all scored a 63 in the Open.

'It is something to savour,' Faldo said. 'It was not the easiest of days and the scoring has been incredible.' Faldo's round was the most incredible of all. He had seven birdies, no bogeys. It seemed that those who had an early tee time had an advantage as the wind grew stronger. Faldo did not go out early but it made no difference to his remorseless progress. Nobody looked like birdieing the 18th until Faldo played it to perfection. He hit a two-iron approach to within 15 feet of the hole and rolled in the putt for the record. There were more than 30,000 people here yesterday and Faldo's exploits will add even more to the gate over the weekend.

Faldo compared his round with his 64 on the second day at Muirfield last year. 'Others had been steaming along, setting the target and that made me more aggressive,' he said. 'I knew what the record was but out there I was not counting up the numbers. I was just thinking about the next shot.' Faldo responded to the support of the crowd who followed him uphill and down dale. 'They were terrific before I'd even done anything so I thought I'd better give them something to get really excited about.' Faldo made the perfect start when he hit a five-iron to four feet at the first. The bookmakers cut him to 2-1 and that is the lowest price ever put on a player with two rounds still to go.

This is not quite what the R and A had in mind when selecting Royal St George's. This, after all, is supposed to be the hardest of the lot. Of all the champions here only Bill Rogers, in 1981, was under par. He shot 66 in the second round and won with an aggregate of 276, four under par. That year Langer finished second. When Sandy Lyle won here in 1985 Langer, then the Masters champion, was third.

When he won the Masters for a second time in April Langer established a superiority at the half-way point. The only bogey on his card yesterday came at the 18th. The wind was gusting left to right so he aimed his drive left but pulled the shot into the rough. Then he hooked a seven-iron and his ball hit a woman on the shoulder. It was the wife of Bernard Hunt, the former Ryder Cup player. After checking to see if she was alright he took three more strokes to get down.

The wind began to get stronger as he was playing the last few holes but by that stage he had made five birdies. 'It's too early to get really excited,' he said but he could not disguise his enthusiasm. 'The three-iron on eight was brilliant,' he said. 'The four-iron on 11 was brilliant.' At the eighth he hit his approach from about 210 yards to within three inches of the flag; at the par-three 11th he had a two by holing from 16 feet.

This time last year Couples was in turmoil, on and off the course. His wife Debbie, whom he is divorcing, had had the last dance on a table in a hotel near Muirfield. Couples missed the cut and left the 121st Open with Garboesque fuss. 'I have a plane waiting.' When he arrived here Couples was not overly optimistic, citing his marriage problems as a serious distraction. 'Last year I had no fun off the course,' he said. 'I've been a little lacklustre. Being lazy I don't have the enthusiasm to go and practise for hours. I just don't get that much out of it.'

Couples did not lack lustre yesterday and both he and Langer got to eight under par for the championship before the closing holes reminded them that the course was not defenceless. Larry Mize described the last two holes as the toughest he had seen. Couples had seven birdies but dropped strokes at the 17th and 18th. Two big blows were required to reach either green. 'I have never felt that this was my week,' Couples said. 'I've been hitting three good drives and then I'd hit one 60 yards off line.'

Couples teed off at 7.35am before the wind freshened and when he holed putts of around 18 and 25 feet for birdies at the second and third holes he had a different outlook on things. 'I feel a lot better than I did 36 holes ago,' he said. 'But I don't think I could beat Nick Faldo or Greg Norman head to head right now.'

He did not mention Langer and he spoke before Faldo and Norman had started the second round. Faldo, who will be 36 tomorrow, went to the turn in 31 with birdies at the first, the fifth, the sixth and the seventh. He also birdied the 13th and 14th, the latter with an outrageous chip from 50 yards after he had twice visited the rough. If he was fortunate there he was desperately unlucky not to get a two at the 16th where his putt horseshoed around the hole. Today Faldo will be paired with Langer and Norman with Couples. Norman, the 1986 Open champion, shot 68 to stand at six under par. 'Faldo's not infallible,' Norman said. 'I played well enough to give me a lot of good feelings for the weekend. I think this will go right down to the wire.'

On a wall in the clubhouse is a photograph of a motorcyclist on which the head of Jack Nicklaus has been superimposed. 'Maybe there is time for one more major, Jack,' reads the caption. Nicklaus went backwards with a 75 and complained that the greens were slow. 'It was hard to get distance and line,' he said. Big Jack missed the half-way cut as did Lyle. Fuzzy Zoeller shot 70 to remain at four under. 'It looks so easy on certain holes and you can feel like a complete idiot when you mess them up,' Zoeller said. He was wearing dark glasses but it was a futile attempt at disguise. He blamed his caddie, Mike Mezzeo, who only advised on club selection on two occasions. 'Both were wrong,' Zoeller said. 'Sometimes you blend, sometimes you don't' Mezzeo has been with Zoeller for 17 years. He was going to dismiss him eight years ago but Mezzeo told him: 'You can't fire me. I know too much.'

(Photograph omitted)

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