There was a lot of foaming at the mouth after Rory McIlroy’s opening-round 63 at St. Andrews, which not only gave him a share of the 18-hole, major-championship scoring record, but tricked some people into thinking the 21-year-old Irishman was well on his way to claiming one of golf’s most coveted titles. I consider myself one of the biggest McIlroy admirers on Earth, but a superb start in utterly docile conditions is not how British Opens are won.
Friday’s follow-up of 80 was more of a reminder than a surprise. Having carded no worse than a 69 on 11 previous trips around the Old Course, McIlroy might find a bit of dark humor in the fact that he still hasn’t played a round in the 70s to this point in his career. At 1 under par through 36 holes, he can still win the tournament, but what McIlroy does Saturday will determine how seriously he will contend Sunday. That he went from three ahead to 11 behind means nothing now.
One could easily project a score of 6 or 8 under as being good enough to hoist the claret jug, so if McIlroy has some work to do, he obviously is capable of getting it done. Nobody ever won a British Open on a Thursday, and in recent years, not many guys have won it on a Saturday afternoon, either. Nine of the last 17 champions trailed going into the final round, several of them by formidable margins. The Masters is the major with the reputation for the final-nine fireworks, but the British has become the home of the fourth-quarter comeback:
*Tom Watson’s heartbreaking loss last summer was Stewart Cink’s gain – he wiped out a three-stroke deficit and seemingly came out of nowhere to nab his first major title.
*Both of Padraig Harrington’s victories (2007, 2008) were led by late rallies. Paddy came from six behind in ’07 and two back the following year, although it’s fair to say the ’08 triumph over Greg Norman featured a much stronger homestretch.
- *Ben Curtis was easy to miss among a pack of big names in ’03, but he got into the clubhouse at 1 under, then watched Tiger Woods miss a series of make-able putts and Thomas Bjorn double bogey the 16th from a greenside bunker. A strange British Open, a stunning winner.
- *The comebacks don’t get any bigger than in 1999, when Paul Lawrie roared back from a 10-stroke deficit to beat the one-and-only Jean Van de Velde (and Justin Leonard) in a playoff. Van de Velde’s 72nd-hole calamity made history. Eleven years later, Lawrie remains a mystery.
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*Leonard would whiff another chance two years later, but in 1997, he came from four behind to defeat Jesper Parnevik, catching the leader with a pair of lengthy putts down the stretch.
*Let’s not forget John Daly, who rallied from four strokes off the pace in 1995 on a Sunday when the winds howled through St. Andrews with only slightly less ferocity than on Friday.
Few halftime leads have seemed more precarious than the one currently held by Louis Oosthuizen, although a man can do worse than to head into the third round leading by five. Woods, meanwhile, comes off one of his grittiest performance of the year: a 73 in the brunt of the breeze, leaving him within striking distance (eight back) heading into the weekend. Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Retief Goosen, Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer – there’s no such thing as too far back on a Saturday morning.
So hold the foam, please. The longer you look at this leaderboard, the more you realize this tournament hasn’t even started.