Golf: The 121st Open: Free-wheeling Faldo puts the field to flight: Secret technique helps the favourite to take a three-stroke lead as Ballesteros, Watson and Nicklaus are left out in the cold

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NICK FALDO, who parred his way to victory in the 116th Open Championship here five years ago, is on course to win the 121st in a more magnanimous, not to say magnificent, style. The Englishman, who celebrates his 35th birthday today, built a three-stroke lead at the half-way stage. He demoralised the opposition, he demoralised the old links with a second round of 64. 'The best round I've ever played in an Open,' he said. 'It was a unique feeling. I felt comfortable with every club in my hand.'

In the last couple of months Faldo has finished third, second, eighth, fourth, first (the Irish Open), fourth, third, third. He described, quite often, his form and his game as awesome, although there were several hiccups in the final round in Ireland, the final round of the US Open at Pebble Beach ('If the USGA want greens like that I'm taking up topless darts') and in the final round of the French Open. For the Open his homework, his preparation, and, above all, his timing have been nigh on perfect.

If Faldo, in terms of victories this season, has not reaped the rewards of impressive play from tee to green, it is because his putting was less than awesome. Yesterday he was rolling them in from all distances. He has been working on a new putting approach with David Leadbetter and it is so secret the technique has a code-name: 'Basil'. Craig Parry, one of Faldo's playing partners, said: 'If he ever bitches about his putting again, I'll shoot him.'

After a 66 in the first round left him two strokes off the pace, Faldo got what he wanted yesterday, a stiffer breeze from the Firth of Forth. Not brutal, but strong enough to entice mistakes from the majority of the field of 156. The cut was made at one over par and among the casualties were Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus who, between them, have won 11 Opens. Ballesteros, needing a par at the 18th, three-putted for a double-bogey six.

Ian Woosnam, a stroke off the lead after the first round, lost ground with a 73 that included six bogeys and 36 putts. He dropped back to four under par, level with Sandy Lyle and one shot behind Jose-Maria Olazabal. Darren Lee, of Essex, is assured of the silver medal as leading amateur since he is the only one to survive.

Faldo's round, a stroke outside the course record set by Isao Aoki 12 years ago, gave him another record, the two-round aggregate for an Open Championship, beating by two strokes Henry Cotton's 132 at Sandwich in 1934, a score which was equalled by Faldo and Greg Norman at St Andrews two years ago. On that occasion Faldo went on to win his second Open title by five strokes.

Faldo, who won here in 1987 when he ground out 18 pars in the final round on a foul day, did not make an auspicious start yesterday afternoon. The temperature was sufficiently cool for the Englishman to stroll round in a sleeveless cardigan. The only time he lost his cool was at the fourth, where he missed a birdie putt from six feet. He slammed the putter against his legs.

He opened with four pars, birdied the fifth and six, bogeyed the seventh and eagled the ninth. When the eagle landed it was the signal for Faldo to set sail for home. He went to the turn in 33 and came back in 31 and the inward nine is considered to be the more difficult.

Faldo, who has four major triumphs to his name - he won the Masters in 1989 and 1990 - leads from Gordon Brand Jnr, a Scot based in England, and John Cook from California. A stroke further back is another Californian, Steve Pate. The South African Ernie Els and two other Americans, Donnie Hammond and Ray Floyd, are five strokes off the lead at seven under.

After the benign conditions of the first round, Faldo said he had a 'free ride'. Yesterday he was free-wheeling and over the back nine he had six threes, nine in his round in all. The eagle three came courtesy of a three-wood approach shot at the ninth that finished four feet from the hole. From a hollow he hit the ball 240 yards with a low draw. 'It went like a rocket,' he said. 'The best three-wood I've ever hit.' On the previous hole he had found rough and sand and saved par with a 20-foot putt.

'It's funny,' he said. 'You put yourself in a mode and tell yourself you can do it. At least being made the favourite is positive. I've had enough negative things said about me.' There are favourites and favourites and last night the bookmakers cut Faldo's odds to 1-2. Faldo got his head in front of Pate when the American Ryder Cup player, who had moved to 10 under par for the tournament, made his first mistake at the 13th where he missed a par putt from seven feet. Seconds later Faldo holed from 10 feet for a birdie on the 12th and from there on he continued his fantastic journey. When his closest rivals looked at the leader board they saw Faldo drawing further and further away.

Brand Jnr has not won a tournament for three years and he did not exactly drop a hint of heroic deeds when he finished joint 62nd in the Scottish Open last week. But then Colin Montgomerie, the great Scottish hope who was second at Gleneagles, missed the cut here. The new Montgomerie image did not survive this setback. He shot 76 in the first round and was philosophical; he shot 70 yesterday and was consumed by a white-knuckled fury. 'I've just missed the cut in the Open. What do you want me to say? What do you want me to say?' Perhaps goodbye.

Brand Jnr had a bogey at the first but made four birdies. When he found trouble he limited the damage. Although in two bunkers at the first, he holed from 10 feet to get away with a five. He also got down from around 10 feet to save par at the sixth and seventh. He birdied the fifth, the easiest hole on the course, the 10th, the 13th and the 14th.

The 14th is the toughest and he hit a three-iron approach to nine feet. That gave him particular satisfaction. 'As the wind got up I started to play better,' he said. 'My game seems absolutely solid. I am pleasantly pleased with myself.' Brand Jnr has been working with his father, Gordon Brand, a professional at Knowle near Bristol, on such basics as rhythm and timing. 'I've never been in this position in an Open before so I don't know how exciting it's going to be,' Brand Jnr said. 'I just hope I can cope.'

Cook saw things differently. He did not come over here to beat the world, he said. Cook is a family man. In almost every other sentence he talked of his family. 'I have a wonderful wife and three wonderful kids. They are so much my priority. I don't mind if I shoot 85. It doesn't really matter to them so it doesn't matter to me.' Cook was in four bunkers and he got up and down from three of them and holed from the other.

'This course gives you options,' he said. 'You can knock the ball down or hit it in the air and I knew this was going to be a day to keep the ball low. I'm not one of your one-dimensional Americans. I love playing over here.' He has a funny way of showing it. This is his first visit to these shores since 1980.

Floyd meddles with time, page 51

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