Daly grips and rips but trips up in hot pursuit

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The Independent Online

John Daly was just one of a succession of hopefuls who flared bravely but briefly on the leaderboard on a hot and breezy afternoon but the prospect of the 1995 Open winner being among the pursuing pack on the closing holes this afternoon started the ripples of renewed excitement among the crocodiles of fans moving on either side on this treacherous ribbon of a course.

His electrifying burst of three birdies on the first three holes raised the curtain on an afternoon that had the leaderboards clattering with dramatic changes. Although he failed to sustain the momentum over 18 holes, Daly rescued his day with a birdie at the 18th that took him round in 70 and put him among a long and still lusty list on six under.

Such is the new volatility of the tournament that an uncommon number of contestants will have woken this morning with a tingle of a chance in their veins. Daly was last night still counting himself in contention, promising: "On this course, maybe I have got a chance if the wind whips up."

He certainly retains a hold on the crowd's imagination that at the very least will make him an exciting trail-blazer, a forerunner of the battles behind him. Despite all his ruthlessly documented problems he remains a figure whose popularity matches the considerable girth that was covered yesterday by a much logoed two-tone blue shirt and there were times when he displayed the power, touch and confidence to give the shake-up a frisson from an unexpected quarter. "I just couldn't make the putts at all in the middle of the round but I am hoping I can still be in touch at the end," he said.

Daly can rely on a rousing welcome wherever he steps on the course but the initial response he received yesterday on the first tee was only a little short of exuberant. When you have been watching nothing else but drives for a couple of hours the prospect of watching the original gripper and ripper in action is bound to excite.

But you could feel, if not hear, the disappointment when he reached past the lion headcover and plucked an iron from his bag. There was to be no burn-bothering this time. Indeed, his tee-shot was fully 35 yards behind that of his playing partner, Stuart Appleby, and over 100 from the pin, but his approach covered the flag all the way and checked back to lie within two feet to give him a birdie start.

It was Daly's penchant for striking his drives to the safe landing places on the left-hand side of most holes that helped him win the championship in 1995, but a fade has been dominating his game. He finds it difficult to draw the ball these days but he is well aware of the troubles a fade can find on the Old Course and confirmed after his first round that he was managing "pretty good".

His followers were encouraged when he reached for his blue-shafted wood on the second tee but after his windmill drive drew the usual gasps from the gallery he watched the flight of the ball anxiously.

There is trouble to be found on the left of the second but there is more on the right and Daly's ball was heading that way. He only just missed the fairway but his ball was nestling in a clump of rough, from which his approach was woefully short. He was four yards shy of the front of the green and more than 30 yards from the pin. His chip looked too strong, but it bounced into the flag-stick and dropped into the hole for a second birdie.

Appleby had been more than slightly overshadowed but he was by no means being out-hit. On the third they both hit left and were level, Daly 20 yards wider.

Appleby approached first and finished 12 feet from the pin but Daly's pitch was deadly accurate once more and again was within two feet. The Australian struck for his first birdie before Daly completed his third and suddenly their gallery thickened.

Wavering fortunes were the pattern throughout yesterday, but Daly struck a run of six straight pars to hold his early challenge steady - although he had to make an excellent save on the fourth to maintain his progress. Once more, the two drives were almost level and this time Daly was the one to have to play first to the blind green.

He listened in vain for the applause that would indicate some success but the reason for the silence was that he had pushed his shot wide of the green on the right. He was almost 40 yards from the pin which was on the bottom of a ridge. Inevitably, his putt rolled 14 feet past the hole and he did very well to hole the return.

Play was slow at this stage and Daly lit up his third cigarette of the round as he waited to play his second on the fifth. He parred that and the next, but then had to watch as Appleby birdied the seventh and eighth holes to join Daly on 33 for the first nine.

Birdies at the 12th and 18th saw Daly finish two shots ahead of Appleby and gain a chance to rock today's applecart even if overturning it is too tall an order.