Tiger Woods rarely lets a course beat him two days running and despite a momentary putting mishap at the 12th, the world No 1 remained ominously positioned with 36 holes to play in the 132nd Open Championship. Woods even threatened to lead at one point but left Davis Love as the only player under par after two days when the world's best have displayed brows furrowed with even more slopes than the rock-hard greens of Royal St George's.
Following their disappointments of the opening day, the fightback was on for the two favourites, Woods and Ernie Els. The defending champion compiled a 68 to claw his way back to four over par.
It was standing as the best round of the day until the challenge of Mark Roe, the European Tour player from Sheffield, who had threes at each of the first six holes, and only just missed for an eagle at the seventh. Woods did not have as much damage to repair. Starting at two over, he birdied the second, the fifth and the seventh to get to one under par.
What stopped him in his tracks was taking four putts from off the front of the 12th green. He also had a four-putt during the final round of the US Open, but by then he was out of contention. This mattered. He was short with his approach and putted four feet past the hole. His par putt lipped out and he then missed his three-footer back.
Woods also took three putts from the front of the 17th green, but chipped from the back of the green at the last and holed from four feet to remained at three over after a 72. Had he missed that final putt he would have slipped back to be level with Els, an unlikely circumstance at the start of the day. While Luke Donald joined the phalanx of home players missing the cut, Tiger's other playing partner, Sergio Garcia, scrambled his way round in 71 to be a shot ahead of Woods at two over.
Greg Norman, the champion here 10 years ago, could not sustain the magic from his opening day 69 and ended at six over, and Woods avoided the high numbers of others. Still there was the suspicion that the 27-year-old American had let a good chance to shoot a low number get away from him. He played beautifully early on, but though the sun was out and the wind was not quite as blustery as the previous day, it was still a matter of survival and taking advantage of some good breaks.
Love, the USPGA champion in 1997, scored a 72 to be one under and two ahead of S K Ho. His moment of outrageous fortune came at the 14th, when his drive hit one of the white posts marking the out of bounds on the right of the fairway. A couple of inches either way and his ball would have ended up on Prince's, a different course entirely, causing the American to reload.
"I didn't see what happened," Love said. "I saw it kick to the right and thought, 'oh, no,' but then the marshal signalled that it was OK. I got up there and played my second and it was only then someone told my caddie what had happened.
"We are all going to get crazy bounces out here," Love added, "but I think I used up three good bounces with that one shot." Throughout the day, as the course firmed up even more, the few players who got under par soon retreated, Woods not being exempt. Scott McCarron tied the overnight leader, Hennie Otto, at three under but finished at three over.
The surprising Ho got to four under, and sole possession of the lead, with an eagle at the fourth but was five over for the last 11 holes. Thomas Levet, the Frenchman who took Ernie Els to a fifth extra hole at Muirfield last year, went to the turn in 33 to be three under, but came home in 40 to be two over.
Otto himself had a lie-in after his 6.30 start time on Thursday. He had no trouble sleeping on the lead, but noticed there was a different feeling on the first tee compared to the previous day when he teed off as a mere qualifier.
"I slept like a dead man last night," he said. "But there was a bit of tension on the first tee. It's your first major and you're leading. There were a few nerves." He bogeyed two of the first three, picked up a couple of birdies, but ended with a 76 to be two over.
"At one stage I thought I might shoot 80 or 90 but my caddie calmed me down. My swing was going haywire. But I'm only three off the lead. Anyone can win this tournament. It all depends on the weather on tomorrow and Sunday."
At 39, Love is playing in his 17th Open and his record in the last few years is a vast improvement on his earlier appearances. "It took me a while to learn how to play major championship golf," said the Players champion, one of three titles he has won this year. "It's more about mental fortitude than physical strength."
Love found himself fighting the wind more than he would have liked and, like everyone else, found the location of the holes on the greens in extremely difficult positions. But he said: "I didn't have the patience to play for the middle of the greens and two-putt.
"But I putted extremely well. I'm thanking my lucky stars right now. I'm going to go to the practice range to slow down my swing and then we'll see about the weekend."
Love made steady progress before birdieing the seventh and the ninth to be out in 34. He bogeyed three of the next four holes, but did manage a two at the 11th. Up against the face of a bunker at the 17th he dropped another shot but conjured a fine par at the last. Having missed the fairway on the right, he played his third shot from left of the green. Utilising the bank behind the hole as a backboard, his chip finished a foot away.
"There were too many fives on the back nine," Love said. "But the course gets harder as it goes on. Your patience gets thinner and your grip gets tighter."
Love's father was a teaching professional who played in the Open at Royal Lytham in 1969. "He used to come over here regularly with a bunch of foursomes made up of his friends and play all the great links. I guess that's where I got some of my love of links golf, but when you get the chance to come over and play yourself you get to love it anyway."Reuse content