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Star-studded leaderboard and baked-out links create great Open drama

Miguel Angel Jimenez
The R&A
Miguel Angel Jimenez has handled Muirfield's challenges better than everyone so far. "I think this probably takes more experience," he said after a second-round 71, "especially when it gets like this."

GULLANE, Scotland -- Halfway through this sun-scorched Open Championship, it's clear that no one is going to win the claret jug. Rather, one player is going to lose it a little bit less than everyone else.

Even with some benevolent overnight watering of the greens, Muirfield has turned into a crispy test that is pushing players to the limit physically, mentally and spiritually. Henrik Stenson went out in the early wave on Friday and shot a one-under 70 that propelled him to two under par, one stroke behind leader Miguel Angel Jimenez. Stenson, however, described his round as an exercise in survival: "I'm taking all my hits on the chin and just moving on. That's kind of the mindset you have to have. You know it's going to be tough. And sometimes you might not feel like it's fair, but we're all playing the same course, and you've got to keep on going forward is the way, not backwards."

The best conditions for advancing up the leaderboard came during the morning, when the greens were softer. After howls of protest on Thursday about the speed of the putting surfaces and the extremity of some pin placements, the R&A remembered one key ingredient in a golf course setup: water. Martin Laird, who teed off at 8:11 a.m., said of the greens, "They were noticeably different. It wasn't like a foot slower, it was two or three feet slower. But I think they had to do that; otherwise, by this afternoon they'd be unplayable."

Laird shot an even-par 71 to finish at one under and joint sixth place, but another early starter went even deeper. Lee Westwood birdied half of his 12 holes to reach six under for the day, but as the course dried up so did his magic, and he settled for a 68 after three late bogeys. At two under through 36 holes, Westwood still has a share of second and the love of the British crowds. He recently turned 40, but the Best Player Never To Have Won A Major displayed a positively sunny attitude on this parched links. "And why not enjoy it out there?" Westwood said. "It's tough for everybody. So smile your way through." He offered another kernel of wisdom looking ahead to what promises to be a dramatic weekend: "Yeah, I think this probably takes more experience, especially when it gets like this. There won't be many people who have played Open Championships or links courses very often in these conditions. Certainly experience is a big factor."

This would help explain Jimenez's spot atop the leaderboard, as at 49 he is seeking to become the oldest player to win a major championship. The charismatic Spaniard fired a no-frills 71 that featured 14 pars, many of them routine. "It's very, very tough to get the ball close," he said. "And it's very, very tough to make putts. So par is good." The Mechanic has long been celebrated for the quality of his iron play -- to say nothing of his Spafro hair and exotic warm-up routine -- and the oldest player to win a Euro tour event (last fall, in Hong Kong) sees no reason why he can't continue this run. Asked in a TV interview if he can with this Open, Jimenez seemed genuinely baffled. "Of course I can," he replied.

To do so, chances are he'll have to go through Tiger Woods, who is a stroke back. Woods pegged it at 9:44 and struggled with his speed on the greens, but cagey course management and solid ball-striking carried him to a 71, capped by a birdie and a fist pump at the home hole. His weekend game plan speaks to the conservative strategy he has employed at a course/racetrack on which Ian Poulter hit a 192-yard sand wedge and Stenson reported striking a five-iron that traveled more than 300 yards. Said Woods of the keys to success, "Just continue plodding along. Just continue being patient, putting the ball in the right spot."

His playing partner, Graeme McDowell, was more effusive. "He was very, very impressive the last two days," said McDowell, who's in 37th place at four over. "Iron play, the flight control that he has in his irons, he just hits the shot that you're supposed to hit at all times. It's incredible how well he controls his ball flight. And he's putting exceptionally well. I lost count of how many eight-, 10-, 15-footers he's made for par over the last two days. I said to him on the 18th green, 'That was a clinic the last two days. That was very impressive.' He's going to be dangerous."

Of course, Woods has been in contention at recent majors and failed to get it done on the weekend, and like Jimenez he will have to contend with a strong leaderboard featuring a variety of styles that speak to Muirfield's quality. Carefree bomber Dustin Johnson (two under) continued to show a flair for links golf, while short-knocking grinder Zach Johnson (one under) coughed up the first-round lead but is still in position to add a second major championship to his resume. The most dangerous player of all may be Angel Cabrera (one under), golf's most fearless big-game hunter. Cabrera, 43, has won only four times in the U.S. and Europe, but two of those are majors, to go along with his playoff loss at this year's Masters. The big man with the soft hands likes to say he plays only for history, and a win at Muirfield, to go along with triumphs at Augusta and Oakmont, should punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Of course, by Sunday evening the real winner figures to be Muirfield, a relentless test that will continue to bake during this unlikely Scottish heat wave. Said McDowell, "Anything a little under par could win at this point. After today, I'd imagine they can sort of let the hand brake off and let the golf course accelerate away from us. It will be interesting to see what happens this weekend, but I don't expect the scoring to be much better."

In fact, expect the going to get much, much tougher.
 

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