Rain, wind turn British Open into persistence test

July 16, 2011 - 9:45 AM
British Open Golf

Sweden's Henrik Stenson and his caddie Fanny Suneson shelter under an umbrella on the 6th fairway during the third day of the British Open Golf Championship at Royal St George's golf course Sandwich, England, Saturday, July 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

SANDWICH, England (AP) — The weather roared at Royal St. George's, turning the British Open into a weekend test of persistence.

Pounding rains and winds gusting over 30 mph prompted players to don bulky, oven-style mitts between shots, huddle under umbrellas and try to find a way to get around the course without giving up too many shots to par.

By early afternoon, when most of the golfers in the bunched-up field had teed off, no one was shooting a round in the red. In fact, a par 70 was sure to be an acceptable score, though the forecast called for stormy conditions to ease up by late afternoon, perhaps benefiting those at the top.

Gary Woodland was 2 under through seven holes, but the weather got him on the back side: four bogeys and a triple-bogey 8 at the 14th left him with a 74. The 61-year-old Tom Watson also got below par until he missed a short putt at the 11th. He took another bogey at the 12th to join the above-par crowd.

Rory McIlroy, coming off a runaway win at the U.S. Open, was struggling early in his round, which began about the time the rain really began slashing across the seaside course. He was 2 over through five holes and just trying to hang on. At one point, he paused to switch to a different vest, one that offered most protection against the downpour.

Maybe he was just looking for something that would float.

McIlroy's playing partner, 22-year-old American Rickie Fowler, fared better. He made a birdie at the fifth, got back to even on the day and was creeping up the board simply by not taking on too much water.

Darren Clarke and Lucas Glover were setting the pace at 4-under 136 through 36 holes. But no one can possibly predict how it will all shake out by the time the final shot is hit Sunday evening, a striking contrast to McIlroy's eight-stoke romp last month at Congressional.

Only seven shots separated the 71 players making the cut.

"I think you'll see a lot of chopping and changing at the top of the leaderboard," McIlroy said. "It's the most open Open I've seen in a long time. It'll be exciting to be a part of and it'll be exciting to watch over the next two days."

The fourth hole, playing into the teeth of the wind, already had proven to be a beast. The first 45 players to come through were a combined 41 over par.

McIlroy was right in the thick of things after grinding out a 1-under 69 on Friday, leaving him just four strokes back. But there were intriguing storylines all around. (Except for the home country. England lost three of its top players to the cut.)

Experience? Forty-somethings Clarke, Thomas Bjorn, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Davis Love III were in contention. So was 52-year-old Tom Lehman.

Big names? Phil Mickelson was three shots back heading to the weekend of his least successful major (one top-10 finish in 17 appearances). A rejuvenated Sergio Garcia picked up the chase for his first major title.

Major champions? The four who reign currently all made it through: Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and, of course, McIlroy, eager to add the claret jug to his U.S. Open crown.

This championship is just getting started.

"There's still two days of tough golf and tough weather ahead of us," Clarke said.

With more rain and strong winds in Sunday's forecast, everyone spoke confidently about being the one who could best handle the harsh conditions.

"One of the things I'm looking forward to is actually the bad weather," Mickelson said bravely.

Clarke, a forgotten figure as McIlroy and Graeme McDowell captured the U.S. Open the last two years, bounced back from a double bogey to make a 90-foot eagle putt and overcame a few more hiccups on his way to a second straight 68.

Glover, playing the kind of golf that won him a U.S. Open two years ago, made only three bogeys in the opening two rounds to join Clarke at the top of the board.

But everyone who made the cut had a chance.

"Unlike often when you're in contention in a championship where it may be between six, seven, eight of you, now it's between the whole field," said first-round co-leader Bjorn, one shot back after 36 holes. "You've just got to go out there and knuckle down and see where it gets you to on Sunday afternoon."

Bjorn was joined at 137 by PGA champion Kaymer, Jimenez and Chad Campbell. The 29 players within four shots of the lead included McIlroy and Fowler, who played together for the third straight day.

"It's basically a new tournament," Fowler said.

Not so for England's Luke Donald, who became the second No. 1 player this year to miss the cut in a major. Another Englishman, second-ranked Lee Westwood, also missed the cut. Yet another home-country favorite, Ian Poulter, headed home after a 78, tweeting along the way that he was trying to stretch enough mileage out of his car so he didn't have to stop for fuel.

At least he was dry.

Given the weather, it could be a repeat of 10 years ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when David Duval started the third round seven shots out of the lead and wound up with a share of the lead by the end of the day.

"There's an awful long way to go yet, and I believe the forecast for the weekend is very, very poor, which I quite look forward to," Clarke said. "But the course is going to play very, very tough.

"If that's the case," he added, "then the tournament is still wide open for an awful lot of players."

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Follow AP National Writer Paul Newberry at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963