Clarke surges up leaderboard with another 68
Just not the one you might expect.
Darren Clarke shot his second straight 2-under 68 on Friday, taking a lead role heading to the weekend and showing his younger countrymen a thing or two at Royal St. George's.
Once the face of Northern Ireland golf, the 42-year-old Clarke became an afterthought when first Graeme McDowell, then Rory McIlroy claimed major championships. Maybe it's time for the old guy to get his title, too.
"It would mean an awful lot," Clarke said. "But obviously, this is only after two rounds. There's an awful long way to go yet."
Clarke rolled in a 90-footer for eagle at the seventh and closed his round with a birdie at the tough 18th, sending him to the clubhouse tied for the top spot with Lucas Glover, Simon Dyson and 18-hole co-leader Thomas Bjorn.
Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, followed an opening 66 with a solid 70 on a warm, sunny day along the English seaside.
"I didn't hole as many putts as I did yesterday," the bearded Glover said. "But I'm happy to grind out even par."
The U.S. has gone five straight majors without a title — its longest drought of the modern Grand Slam era. Glover shrugged off the slump; besides, he could be in line to snap another streak.
"They told me no one has won the Open championship with a beard since the 1890s," he said.
Also in contention from the other side of the Atlantic: Chad Campbell, who shot 68 for a 3-under 137 total; Davis Love III, whose 68 left him at 138; and, yes, even Phil Mickelson, who came to England trying to forget his Open record.
Lefty has only one top-10 finish in 17 previous appearances. Despite missing several short putts over the first two days, a 69 pushed him into contention at 139.
"It was a fun day," Mickelson said. "It's fun to be in contention heading to the weekend of the British Open."
The forecast looked much worse for the weekend, with both wind and rain expected.
Bring it on, said Mickelson.
"One of the things I'm looking forward to is actually the bad weather," he said. "I hope it comes in and we get faced with that."
Simon Dyson, an alternate from England, got off to a blistering start with three straight birdies in the afternoon to push his score to 5 under, briefly holding the outright lead. A bogey at the fourth stymied his momentum.
Bjorn, playing in the same group as Dyson, was in danger of falling completely out of the mix when he bogeyed three straight holes starting at No. 2. But the 40-year-old Dane pulled himself together with birdies on two of the next three holes.
The opening round produced a pair of unlikely leaders. Bjorn had missed the cut in four of five events before he got to Royal St. George's, his game in disarray, his heart heavy after the death of his father, and lugging around plenty of baggage at this place.
Eight years ago, Bjorn squandered a two-stroke lead in the final three holes, allowing Ben Curtis to sneak away with one of golf's most improbable wins.
Getting into the tournament on Monday as an alternate when Vijay Singh dropped out, Bjorn played only one practice round, then went out and shot a 65.
So did 20-year-old Tom Lewis, who became the first amateur to lead the Open since 1968, the first to pace any major since Mike Reid at the 1976 U.S. Open.
But Reid looked more his age in the second round, bogeying the final two holes for a 74 that dropped him three strokes behind the clubhouse leaders. At 18, Lewis knocked his approach over the green, striking a fence post in front of the grandstands and forcing him to play a chip off a gravel road.
Still, he's made it through to the weekend — his primary goal.
"If you asked me that two days ago, I would have taken it," Lewis said. "But at this moment, it doesn't feel so good."
At least he had a good view for the shot of the day.
Playing partner Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion Lewis is named after, sent a charge through the place with a hole-in-one at the sixth.
Pulling out a 4-iron, Watson sent the ball soaring to the green, then watched it bounce one time before dropping into the cup. The 61-year-old threw both arms in the air, high-fived Henrik Stenson, shook hands with Lewis, then took a bow toward the grandstand.
"Wish I could have seen it go in," Watson quipped as he walked toward the hole to retrieve his ball.
It was the second hole-in-one at this Open. Dustin Johnson aced the 16th during the opening round.
Watson missed some short putts, though, and finished with a 70 for a 142, likely good enough to send him through to the weekend.
The morning starters definitely caught a break with the weather. Early on, there was barely a cloud in the sky and little wind off the Strait of Dover, the flags hanging limply above the grandstand.
Clarke took advantage, though it had nothing do with being spurred on by the success of his younger countrymen.
"I've been personally delighted for both of them," he said. "We've got back-to-back U.S. Open champions from a small, little country like Northern Ireland. That's a massive achievement."
Clarke will likely be carrying on this weekend without McDowell, who stumbled to a 77 for a 5-over 145.
"It's getting to be a bit of a habit, these type of days," McDowell moaned. "A bad habit to get into, obviously."
McIlroy, who got off to a sluggish start Thursday with a 71, played in the afternoon as the wind picked up, making it tougher to go low. But two other defending major winners were in good shape.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer (67) was at 137, with Masters winner Charl Schwartzel (68) another stroke back. Defending British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (70) also appeared safely above the cut line at 142.
Coming into the week, all three took a backseat to McIlroy, the centerpiece of this major after an eight-stroke win in the U.S. Open. But the 22-year-old had some work to do to claim the claret jug.
Top-ranked Luke Donald (an opening 71) was another player saddled with the late-early portion of the draw, working against the Englishman's bid to claim his first major title.
A morning tee time didn't help another of England's major-less stars. Second-ranked Lee Westwood, perhaps the best player never to win one of golf's Grand Slam championships, took a double-bogey at No. 8, finished with a 73 and needed some good fortune just to make the cut at 144.
Another prominent player dropped out.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen withdrew Friday because of a back injury, though he was unlikely to make the cut after opening with a 76.
Last updated: 5:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012