CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy’s return to the site of his first Open Championship has been rejuvenating. Seeing images of himself competing as a mop-topped, teen-aged amateur has reminded him of the care-free approach he had in younger days.
McIlroy is only 29 but he’s been a pro for more than a decade. The burden of expectations can increase with age, and he feels that excessive tension has led to disappointing performances in the year’s first two majors. He failed to seize the opportunity when he was in the final group at the Masters, then shot himself out of the U.S. Open before half the field had even teed off in the first round.
“I’ve been a little too careful and too tentative,” he said. “Last day at Augusta, even the first day at Shinnecock, I was holding on a little too much. This week, one of my main thoughts is just to get it go. Just go out there and give it your all. I’d rather fail by trying 100 percent than by holding back.”
So far, it seems to have worked. McIlroy has opened The Open Championship with consecutive 69s to enter the weekend in contention for his second Claret Jug despite playing in the harder half of the draw. He shot 2 under par Friday while playing through the worst of the rain.
Many players have been hitting irons off the tee at Carnoustie, using the firm fairways to roll their balls to the proper spot and avoid the penal pot bunkers. McIlroy didn’t want to be cautious, though. He wanted to rely on the best club in his bag, the driver. Friday’s rain forced him to abandon that plan, but the weekend’s sunny forecast should allow him to return to it.
“With the dampness and the cold, a lot of fairway bunkers were in play with driver, where, if it’s dry and a little warmer, you’re flying those bunkers,” he said. “If the conditions do change and go back to the way they were yesterday, I’d see myself hitting a lot more drivers again.”
McIlroy, the 2016 FedExCup champion, is seeking his first major in four years. He won both The Open and PGA Championship in 2014, giving him four major victories in a four-year span. After missing The Open at St. Andrews in 2015 because of an ankle injury, he has finished in the top five in the past two Opens, as well.
McIlroy’s victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard in March was his first win since claiming the 2016 TOUR Championship. He is ranked 39th in the FedExCup, but could make a big move this week.
He has made just three bogeys through 36 holes at Carnoustie, where he was low amateur 11 years ago. He had four birdies and two bogeys Friday.
“It was definitely a day where, don’t shoot yourself out of the tournament instead of trying to press on and build a lead or get an advantage,” McIlroy said.
Zach Johnson has already won one Claret Jug and been a consistent contender at The Open Championship. Over the past seven Opens, he has finished in the top 16 in six of them.
“I feel like this championship more than any tournament completely magnifies exactly what I need to work on, my strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Once I learned that – I don’t know if it was the first year or the second year or the third year – I just gravitated towards this style of golf.”
Johnson is back in contention at The Open after shooting 69-67 in the first two rounds. He’ll be joined in Saturday’s final group by a countryman with a similar skill set, Kevin Kisner. They’re locked in a tight race in the FedExCup, as well. The two Americans are separated by a single point. Johnson is 51st in the standings. Kisner is 52nd.
Their presence atop the leaderboard proves that Carnoustie’s firm and fast fairways have opened the door to a variety of contenders. Both co-leaders are short hitters who rely on strong short games.
Kisner (66-70) has hit just 22 greens and 16 of 30 fairways. He’s needed just 51 putts. He insisted that his ball-striking is not an issue, though.
“I’m hitting the ball fine,” said Kisner, a two-time TOUR winner. “It’s not like I’m struggling with my ballstriking. I’m just not repeating it as much as I want to.”
Kisner would have been alone atop the leaderboard if not for a double-bogey on his final hole. He drove into the thick rough left of the 18th fairway, then hit his approach shot into the Barry Burn.
He is off to his best start in an Open. He has finished outside the top 50 in three previous Open appearances. He can take solace from the fact that his fellow American also got off to a rough start in the only major played outside of their homeland.
Johnson, an Iowa native, missed the cut in his first three Opens, shooting over par in five of those six rounds. He hasn’t missed a cut here since.
He first played the weekend in an Open at Carnoustie in 2007, shooting 68-70 on the weekend to finish T20. He doesn’t remember much about that week, though.
“The only shot I remember hitting here was an 8-iron on the eighth hole, which is a par-3, and I hit it out of bounds,” Johnson said. “I remember making the cut and thinking, ‘Man, this is good. Finally.’
He’s had a lot of success in The Open since, and it continued Friday.
You may have heard this one before. Jordan Spieth used a strong scrambling skills to work his way into contention at The Open Championship. The defending champion hit less than half his fairways Friday but still shot 67 to pull within three shots of the lead. He chipped in on the third hole and made a memorable birdie from the trees on the 10th hole.
Spieth could be even closer to the lead if not for a tough finish to Thursday’s round. He played the final four holes in 4 over to shoot 72. His only bogey Friday came at the 16th hole, his second consecutive bogey at the 248-yard, par-3. Spieth has endured a tough season because of putting struggles but he said that a change made Thursday afternoon paid dividends in the second round.
“I made a change even from yesterday to today on the practice green that allowed my arms to do more of the work, which is what I'm looking to do,” Spieth said. “It's getting there. Maybe 60, 70 percent of the putts I'm hitting are set up exactly like I want them to, and there's still a few where it looks kind of weird to me, and I feel like I have to manipulate it. It’s come a long way in the last few months, no doubt.”
Spieth won last year’s Claret Jug with a memorable finish that denied Matt Kuchar his first major championship. Kuchar is back in contention after shooting 68 on Friday. At 4-under 138, he’s just two shots off the lead.
“I'm pleased to find myself back in contention,” Kuchar said. “That last year was awfully close. I had a taste of it. I'd certainly like on Sunday to be right back in that same position.”
Dustin Johnson: The FedExCup leader is headed home after shooting 76-72. It’s just his second missed cut in his past 16 majors. He has nine top-10s in those 16 majors.
Justin Thomas: The reigning FedExCup champion made three consecutive doubles on Nos. 6-8 to shoot 77 and missed the cut by one shot. Thomas shot 69 in the first round.
Webb Simpson: THE PLAYERS champion will make the cut after shooting 1-under 141 (70-71) in the first two rounds.
Bubba Watson: This season’s only three-time winner shot 75-73 to miss the cut. Watson is third in the FedExCup standings. He has never finished in the top 20 at an Open Championship, missing the cut in half of his 10 starts.
Justin Rose: Rose, who is fourth in the FedExCup standings, birdied the last hole to make the cut on the number with rounds of 72-73. He has birdied the 18th hole in both rounds.
Jason Day: The No. 5 player in the FedExCup standings opened with consecutive 71s to comfortably advance to the weekend.
Tiger Woods: The three-time Open champion also shot back-to-back 71s.
Tony Finau: Finau has had an unforgettable major season. It started with a dislocated ankle on the eve of the Masters. He still finished 10th. Then he played in the final group of the U.S. Open, eventually finishing fifth at Shinnecock Hills. Now he’s in contention at another major. Finau will start the third round two shots off the lead after shooting 67-71.
QUOTABLESI’ve been called ‘Dustin’ many times. I doubt he’s been called ‘Zach.’I just ran out of gas.It’s lovely to be here for the weekend.