HOYLAKE, England – When did George Coetzee notice he was tied atop the leaderboard at the Open Championship? About the same time he bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17.
“It’s obvious I looked at it as soon as I was at the top,” he said with a laugh Friday at Royal Liverpool.
The back-to-back bogeys might have dropped him out of a share of the lead, but Coetzee sank an 8-foot putt on the last to give him a 3-under 69 – matching his career-low round in a major – and a 5-under 139 total through two rounds. After playing in the late-early wave, in the worst of the conditions, he sits just one shot off the lead of Rory McIlroy, who doesn’t tee off until 9:27 a.m. ET Friday.
Not a bad birthday present.
Coetzee turned 28 on Friday, and he will celebrate with “a couple of Cokes” and some good company, with his girlfriend and mother in town for the Open.
The South African, ranked No. 72 in the world, arrived at Hoylake in search of some form. Entering this week he had missed three of his last five cuts, with no top-25 finishes. This is the championship he covets most, however, and in his first career major, the 2011 British Open, he was tied for seventh, two shots off the lead, after two rounds at Royal St. George’s. He eventually tied for 15th.
“At one stage of my career I averaged 69s for majors,” he said, laughing.
Now, Coetzee is trying to become the second South African in the past five years to win the Open. Growing up there, he admittedly wasn’t very good while playing in the wind. His home course, Pretoria, is a parkland course about 4,600 feet above sea level, and he says that he never broke 80 on the coast until he was 16.
“I couldn’t understand why the ball was going so short,” he said.
Eventually, he grew to love links golf, because of the imagination required.
“It’s a lot more fun,” he said.
It wasn’t much fun for the rest of the field Friday morning, when the wind gusted up to 35 mph with ominous skies. When Coetzee finished his round, Royal Liverpool was playing nearly two shots more difficult than it had during the opening round. Coetzee, D.A. Points and Gary Woodland were the only players to post a round in the 60s while playing in the morning.
Coetzee qualified for his ninth career major by winning earlier this season at the European Tour’s Joburg Open. It was his first career title, and he said that it was “nice to tick the box” heading into the heart of the season.
“Really big,” he said. “It’s nice to take the pressure away from yourself, knowing that you’ve been there and done it.”