SOUTHPORT, England – A day earlier, I had written about how links golf was the great equalizer (“Birkdale levels playing field for Open hopefuls,” July 21, http://bit.ly/2uHZFJM). Nothing makes the case more than Friday’s crazy day at Royal Birkdale. For each player under par (eight), nearly 20 were over.
The leaderboard changed as much as a mother changes a newborn’s diapers. Charl Schwartzel, Justin Thomas, Stuart Manley, Martin Laird and Daniel Berger were within three or fewer shots of the 5-under lead of Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar when they day began.
Schwartzel got to 5 under early Friday before Royal Birkdale rattled the 2011 Masters champion. He would lose nine shots over the next 14 holes, falling from one shot off the lead to 4 over and 10 shots behind Spieth, the 36-hole leader at 6-under 134 (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH).
“As much as you want to challenge yourself, really, it's just luck,” said Schwartzel, who shot 8-over 78 in gusty wind and sometimes driving rain. “You're hitting these shots and the ball is just going whatever. Whereas yesterday with a little bit of a breeze, you can really play golf. You can move the ball. And the way it is out there now, it's not much fun.”
Berger, who opened with 68 on Thursday, started well in the second round. Mid-round, he dropped seven shots in an eight-hole stretch. He played the last four holes in 1 under to shoot 76 and slip one stroke ahead of the 5-over cutline for the weekend.
“I was telling my caddie that every single hole felt like the hardest hole I've ever played in my life, for 18 straight holes,” said Berger, who is making his second Open start. “So, you can imagine what that feeling's like. You just don't feel like you have any birdie chances. I really didn't play that bad, and I legitimately had three putts for birdie today. It's just brutal.”
Laird made five birdies in a first-round 68, but those were just a memory on Friday, when he slogged to five bogeys and two double bogeys in a birdie-free 79. For Laird, a native Scot who was raised in this sort of weather, the 147 total meant an early trip back to his home in the U.S.
“So, there's no doubt the golf course plays a lot harder in this wind direction, and it's also blowing hard, but obviously I'm really disappointed,” said Laird, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour. “I said to my caddie, ‘I'm not really playing that bad, and I'm 9 over.’
“Putts are terrible, but tee to green I was all right,” he said. “You've just got to make those 10-footers and then, when it's like this, you're going to have lots of them for par.”
Yet, some of the old hands figured it out. Zach Johnson teed off at 8:03 a.m. after shooting a 5-over 75 on what was a relatively benign Thursday.
Over 18 holes, as the menacing 20-mph-plus winds swept over Royal Birkdale, Johnson made five birdies and a lone bogey, reversing his fortunes with a 4-under 66 to pull within seven shots off the lead.
“Just a great rhythm out there today,” Johnson said of his best round in the Open since a final-round 66 at St. Andrews’ Old Course in 2015 got him into a playoff and he won his second major championship. “I guess the other factor that just hit me is, this is the wind I essentially practiced in. I didn't have really too many opportunities to play [Thursday’s] wind. It's just golf. I can't really explain it.”
Rory McIlroy, who had missed cuts in his three previous starts, also was looking for some second-round redemption. He opened with bogeys on five his first six holes Thursday before scratching out a 1-over 71.
In far more difficult conditions Friday, McIlroy made four more birdies in a 2-under 68, his best score since a third-round 65 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
“I think when the wind is this strong, you just have to go with it,” said McIlroy, whose four major titles include the 2014 British Open. “It's so hard to work against it. Yeah, I was trying to keep the ball down a little bit. The 12th hole today was playing 162 yards, and I hit a 5-iron and it came up short. That's how windy it is out there. It's tough to pick a club and commit to it.”
Thomas (80–147) and Manley (81–149) struggled and won’t be around for the weekend.
The wind forecast for Saturday is from the same direction, the southeast, but at considerably less velocity, a comparatively docile 5-10 mph. That could help turn a soft Royal Birkdale into a shooting gallery.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli