Rory McIlroy in prime position going into moving day

Now, this is more like it.

The 147th Open Championship kicks into overdrive today at Carnoustie and what a pleasure it is to see Rory McIlroy right in the thick of the action heading into the third round.

What started out as a wide-open, well, Open, has remained thus, with 39 golfers within six shots of the halfway lead held at six under par by 2015 champion Zach Johnson and first-round leader Kevin Kisner.

So difficult is it to predict a likely winner with 36 holes to play that even Tiger Woods, on level par and in a tie for 28th, believes he has a shot at landing the Claret Jug for a fourth time tomorrow evening.

“Right now, I’m six back and, by day’s end, I think I’ll be more than that,” said Woods following his second 71 of the week.

“It will be a pretty packed leaderboard, and I’m certainly right there in it.” 

Woods will have retired for the evening last night pleasantly surprised his deficit did not extend beyond six strokes, but there is plenty of quality between the 14-time major winner and the top of the leaderboard. England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who shot the round of the day, a seven-under-par 65 in the worst of the weather yesterday morning, is in a three-way tie for third at five under with Americans Pat Perez and Xander Schauffele.

 Right behind is McIlroy, four under par for the tournament, two behind the leaders, and alongside, among others, last year’s runner-up Matt Kuchar. His back-to-back rounds of 69 were far from identical and a further vindication of his defence against television analyst and renowned coach Butch Harmon, who claimed on the eve of the tournament that the four-time major winner was a robot.

On Thursday, his two-under opening round was a power-play, as McIlroy took driver at every opportunity and cared little whether he found Carnoustie’s narrow fairways. given the relatively short rough on either side of them. 

Yesterday, as the rain drizzled throughout his morning round, the Down man preferred a more strategic approach, using his driver just six times when confronted with one of the famous links’ 15 fairways and he still reached the same tidy score.

For a player without a major victory since 2014, when his wins at the Open and a month later at the PGA Championship raised his tally to four, McIlroy seems finally ready to break the tape at the finishing line, though after last-day disappointment at this year’s Masters and a missed cut at last month’s US Open, he was not taking anything for granted.

“There’s still a long way to go, depending on what happens tomorrow going into Sunday. Then, over 36 holes, a lot of stuff and a lot of things can happen,” said McIlroy.

“I’m in a great position going into the third day. I was top-10 going into the third day at Birkdale last year (in a tie for sixth, five shots off Jordan Spieth’s lead, but he finished tied for fourth), so similar enough, but, yeah, I’m happy.

“I feel like I played in the toughest of the conditions, and definitely our side of the draw, we had to sort of tough it out a little bit. It was a little more difficult. So I’m happy to be in with a shot.

“Hopefully, I can go out and play well again tomorrow and then that will be a big chance going into Sunday, but I feel like there are low rounds in me.

“I felt very comfortable out there. I played within myself. I haven’t taken on too much. It has felt, I don’t want to say easy, but it’s felt comfortable.”

“So if I can get on a run or get off to a fast start in the next couple of days, I don’t see a ridiculously low score out there, but I definitely see something like what Tommy (Fleetwood, with a 65) shot today, a 66 or a 65. I think I’m capable of that.” 

McIlroy’s conservatism yesterday should not be mistaken for the tentativeness that reined in his aggressive option at the Masters when he failed to bridge a three-shot gap to final-round leader Patrick Reed. Instead, it was the sensible play in the worst weather of the week and, if conditions improve as expected over the weekend, he will be back on the front foot over the next 36 holes.

“Yeah, 100%. I just think with the conditions today, with the dampness and the cold, a lot of fairway bunkers were in play with driver where, if it’s dry and it’s a little warmer, you’re flying those bunkers and then, especially with the moisture on the clubface and the ball, it just wasn’t worth it, but when I did hit driver today, I hit it well, so that was a good thing, so if the conditions do change and go back to the way they were yesterday, I’d see myself hitting a lot more drivers again, yeah.” 

Pádraig Harrington, despite his own disappointment at missing the cut on the course he triumphed on for his maiden major victory in 2007, shared his compatriot’s optimism for a repeat Irish success 11 years on.

“Yeah, from the wrong side of the draw, it looks very positive,” said three-time major champion Harrington. 

“These are the conditions, the two days he’s had, you’d say they were tough enough conditions and certainly it looks like the tougher side of the draw. To keep yourself in contention, he’s got to be feeling good.”

Asked whether he had any advice for McIlroy heading into the weekend of an Open Championship at Carnoustie, Harrington replied: “I think he knows what he’s doing.” 

There may be less clarity concerning some of number-eight ranked McIlroy’s contemporaries in the world’s top 10. Numbers one Dustin Johnson (six over par) and two Justin Thomas (four over) were both sent packing last night, as the cut line fell at three over, also accounting for No 5 Jon Rahm, who like Ireland’s Shane Lowry finished on five over after a 78.

It looked for a while like defending champion Spieth, ranked sixth, and No 3 Justin Rose might join them. Spieth started the day at one over, but posted a four-under 67 to reach three under alongside Rickie Fowler and Kevin Chappell, while his playing partner Rose had a more stressful day, needing a birdie at the last to scrape into the weekend on three over.

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