Clarke, Not McIlroy, Puts Ireland Atop British Open

July 15, 2011

The Associated Press

A player from Northern Ireland charged up the leaderboard at the British Open. But it's not the one you might expect.

Darren Clarke shot his second straight 2-under 68 Friday, good enough for a share of the lead heading into the weekend. Along the way, he showed his younger countrymen a thing or two at Royal St. George's.

Once the face of Northern Ireland golf, the 42-year-old Clarke became an afterthought when first Graeme McDowell, then Rory McIlroy claimed major championships. Now, maybe it's time for the old guy to get his title, too.

"It would mean an awful lot," Clarke said. "But obviously, this is only after two rounds. There's an awful long way to go yet."

Clarke rolled in a 90-footer for eagle at the seventh and closed his round with a birdie at the tough 18th, sending him to the clubhouse tied for the top spot with Lucas Glover of South Carolina, at a 4-under 136.

Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, followed an opening 66 with a solid 70 on a warm, sunny day on the English seaside.

"I didn't hole as many putts as I did yesterday," the bearded Glover said. "But I'm happy to grind out even par."

Glover Eyes A Win For The Bearded

The U.S. has gone five straight majors without a title — its longest drought of the modern Grand Slam era. Glover shrugged off the slump; besides, he could be in line to snap another streak.

"They told me no one has won the Open championship with a beard since the 1890s," he said.

Also in contention from the other side of the Atlantic: Chad Campbell, who shot 68 and was one shot back at 3-under 137; old-timers Davis Love III (68) and Tom Lehman (67), both at 138; and, yes, even Phil Mickelson, who came to England trying to forget his Open record.

Lefty has only one top-10 finish in 17 previous appearances. Despite missing several short putts over the first two days, a 69 made him a factor at 139.

"It's fun to be in contention heading to the weekend of the British Open," he said.

The forecast was much worse for the weekend, with both wind and rain expected.

Bring it on, said Mickelson.

"One of the things I'm looking forward to is actually the bad weather," he said. "I hope it comes in."

A Day For The Veterans

Thomas Bjorn, who shared a one-shot lead after the first round, was in danger of falling completely out of the mix when he bogeyed three straight holes at the start of play Friday. But the 40-year-old Dane pulled himself together, playing 1 under the rest of the way for a 72 that left him one stroke off the lead heading to the weekend.

"It wasn't the prettiest of days golf-wise, but I'll take where I stand in the championship," Bjorn said.

So will Miguel Angel Jimenez, also at 137 after shooting 71.

There was plenty of experience on the leaderboard, with 40-somethings Clarke, Jimenez, Bjorn and Love, plus the 52-year-old Lehman, who won the Open back in 1996.

"The round just kind of flowed," Lehman said. "I hit it solidly, made a few nice putts, drove the ball extremely well, so I feel like I wasn't really pressured all day long. It was a good day."

Bjorn And Lewis Slip From Top

Thursday's opening round had produced a pair of unlikely leaders. Bjorn had missed the cut in four of five events before he got to Royal St. George's, his game in disarray, his heart heavy after the death of his father, and lugging around plenty of baggage at this place.

Eight years ago, Bjorn squandered a two-stroke lead in the final three holes, allowing Ben Curtis to sneak away with one of golf's most improbable wins.

Getting into the tournament on Monday as an alternate when Vijay Singh dropped out, Bjorn played only one practice round, then went out and shot a 65.

So did 20-year-old Tom Lewis, who became the first amateur to lead the Open since 1968, the first to pace any major since Mike Reid at the 1976 U.S. Open.

But Lewis looked more his age in the second round, bogeying the final two holes for a 74 that dropped him three strokes off the pace. At No. 18, Lewis knocked his approach over the green, striking a fence post in front of the grandstands and forcing him to play a chip off a gravel road.

Still, he's made it through to the weekend — his primary goal.

"If you asked me that two days ago, I would have taken it," Lewis said. "But at this moment, it doesn't feel so good."

At least he had a good view for the shot of the day.

Playing partner Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion Lewis is named after, sent a charge through the place with a hole-in-one at the sixth.

Pulling out a 4-iron, Watson sent the ball soaring to the green, then watched it bounce one time before dropping into the cup. The 61-year-old threw both arms in the air, high-fived Henrik Stenson, shook hands with Lewis, then took a bow toward the grandstand.

"Wish I could have seen it go in," Watson quipped as he walked toward the hole to retrieve the second hole-in-one at this Open. Dustin Johnson aced the 16th during the opening round.

Watson missed some short putts, though, and finished with a 70 for a 142, good enough to send him through to the weekend.

A Good Morning For Scoring

The morning starters definitely caught a break with the weather. Early on, there was barely a cloud in the sky and little wind off the Strait of Dover, the flags hanging limply above the grandstand. The breeze picked up in the afternoon, and things could turn downright nasty on the weekend.

Clarke took advantage, though it had nothing do with being spurred on by the success of his younger countrymen.

"I've been personally delighted for both of them," he said. "We've got back-to-back U.S. Open champions from a small, little country like Northern Ireland. That's a massive achievement."

Clarke will likely be carrying on this weekend without McDowell, who stumbled to a 77 for a 5-over 145.

"It's getting to be a bit of a habit, these type of days," McDowell moaned. "A bad habit to get into, obviously."

McIlroy, who got off to a sluggish start Thursday with a 71, played in the afternoon as the wind picked up, making it tougher to go low. But he was hanging around — 1 under through 16 holes, even for the tournament and a mere four strokes off the lead.

Major Winners Lurk In Pack

PGA champion Martin Kaymer (67) was at 137, with Masters winner Charl Schwartzel (68) another stroke back. Defending British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (70) also was safely above the cut line at 142.

Coming into the week, all three took a backseat to McIlroy, the centerpiece of this major after an eight-stroke win in the U.S. Open. But the 22-year-old won't be running away with this one.

Top-ranked Luke Donald was another player saddled with the late-early portion of the draw, working against the Englishman's bid to claim his first major title. He was 2 over on the day, 3 over in the tournament and mainly concerned with making it to Saturday.

A morning tee time didn't help another of England's major-less stars. Second-ranked Lee Westwood, perhaps the best player never to win a Grand Slam championship, took a double-bogey at No. 8 and finished with a 73. At 144, he was lingering below the cut line late in the day.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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