ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Good luck topping Open Championship Friday.
It had everything. And we mean everything. Some of the game’s biggest names worked their way to the top of the leaderboard, who we’ll get to see battle it out over the weekend in the final major of the year on the world’s most iconic course.
Speaking of the Old Course, this old gal has held up wonderfully at this 150th Open. She’s firm and fast and allowing birdies while punishing mistakes, and the winner is going to have to go low, but that was expected. It’s a strategic test that’s making players think, and what’s not to love about that?
And then there was Friday’s climax, which came around 3:15 pm local time, when Tiger Woods, winner of two St. Andrews Opens, strode over the Swilcan Bridge, waved his cap and walked down the widest fairway in golf to a roaring ovation. This probably won’t be Woods’ last Open, but it very well could be his final one on the Old Course, his favorite in the world.
“I fell in love with it back in 1995 and it hasn’t changed,” said Woods, who shot 78-75 to miss the cut. “I just love how it can be played in so many different ways. And, again, today, we had winter this morning and we had summer this afternoon. So it’s just the way it goes around here. … But still, the ovation I got at 18 is something I’ll always remember just because I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to play another one again here.”
As Woods walked down the 18th, Rory McIlroy passed him going up the first fairway, starting his second round. McIlroy tipped his cap. He’s among a handful of players in contention for the Claret Jug.
The first day of a major championship is pace-car day. Seventy-two holes is a lot of golf; it’s all about getting into position. But on Day 2, the board starts to settle. The cream rises to the top and the second half of the tournament starts to take shape. And this leaderboard is one to salivate over.
World No. 6 Cameron Smith is your 36-hole leader, one-upping his Thursday 67 with a brilliant eight-under 64. He’s at 13 under and leads Cameron Young by two and Viktor Hovland and McIlroy by three.
Also in the mix are a handful of other household names: two-time major champion Dustin Johnson (nine under), World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler (eight under), Tyrrell Hatton (eight under), Adam Scott (seven under), Patrick Cantlay (seven under) and US Open champ Matt Fitzpatrick (six under). Of the top 10 players in the world, six are T12 or better.
On Thursday, players found a fast and firm bowling alley of a golf course. But the property received a little rain overnight and early Friday morning, making a fast course a little less fast and firm greens a little more receptive. The early wave took advantage. DJ shot 67. Scheffler 68. Hatton 66. Scott 65.
“It was very different only because yesterday we had bright sunshine and it was rock hard,” Hatton said. “And then obviously this morning it was still firm but it was cloudy and raining.”
Johnson was the first to get in, posting a number and giving players a target. He was bogeyless on the day and birdied three of his last five.
“I feel like I’ve got a good game plan,” Johnson said. “Kind of depends on the wind direction, how you attack the golf course. I feel like I’m swinging better. Obviously, it’s just avoiding the bunkers as much as possible.”
Johnson’s clubhouse lead stood until Smith finished his flawless afternoon. The Australian birdied the first three and shot five under on the front, birdied the 11th and then drained a 64-footer for eagle on 14. He parred out to post a bogey-free round.
“I think I’ve always been a pretty good player in tough conditions,” Smith said. “I think most Aussies are, for some reason. I think we’re all brought up to be smart golfers, hit away from the pin sometimes. And that really serves us better, I think, in big tournaments and when the conditions get tough.”
Smith, 28, is enjoying his best season as a pro. He won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, added a Players title to his resume in March and was in the final pairing at this year’s Masters, tying for third. He’s still looking for his first major title.
“It’s obviously a really good spot to be in,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been in this spot a lot over the past couple of years, and things just haven’t quite gone my way yet. But like I said before, I’ve just got to be really patient over the weekend. I think the golf course is going to get a lot harder and a lot faster.”
Joining him in the final pairing will be Young, the 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie who has three runner-ups this season but hasn’t won. He was the overnight leader Thursday and shot 69 on Friday.
The penultimate pairing will be Hovland and McIlroy, both three off the lead. Hovland chipped in for eagle on 15 and birdied the last for his 66. McIlroy followed a slick 66 on Thursday with a 68 on Friday.
McIlroy missed the 2015 Open here (when he was the defending champ) with an ankle injury, and at the 2010 St. Andrews Open he followed a Thursday 63 with a Friday 80. That second-day slump didn’t happen this time around.
He started slow with four straight pars but made birdie on 5 and 7. A bogey on 8 set him back, but he opened the back side with three straight birdies. He missed a six-footer for par on 15 but stole one on the par-4 17th. No one is supposed to birdie the Road Hole – the most difficult hole on the Open rota – but McIlroy drained a 23-footer for a birdie 3. On 18, the easiest hole on the Old Course, McIlroy failed to get up and down from just off the green and settled for a par.
He finished at 8:28 pm, as a chill set in on St. Andrews. Smith was probably back at his rental property by then. He’s been binge-watching “Peaky Blinders.” He watched a few episodes last night and plans to knock off two or three more Friday night. Anything to help stay up a little later and sleep in a little more, with Saturday’s late tee time on the horizon.
This thing is getting good. Two more days to go.