SANDWICH, England (AP) — Rory McIlroy won the last major championship by a whopping eight strokes.
Don’t expect any runaways at the British Open.
After the field was whittled down to 71 players Friday for what figures to be a wild – and stormy – weekend at Royal St. George’s, only seven strokes separated the leaders from the guys who’ll tee off first.
Darren Clarke and Lucas Glover were setting the pace after 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 record-setting romp last month at the U.S. Open.
“I think you’ll see a lot of chopping and changing at the top of the leaderboard,” the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland 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 third round began with wind, rain and high scores.
The fourth hole, playing into the gusts that were expected to reach 40 mph, already had proven to be a beast. The first 21 players to come through were a combined 20 over par. No one made a par until Gary Woodland, who is among the longest hitters in golf.
Of the first 29 players to tee off, Woodland was the only one under par.
Clarke and Glover were still hours from teeing off and might catch a break. The forecast was for the wind to get stronger and the rain to fall even harder through the afternoon before easing late in the day.
McIlroy was right in the thick of things after grinding out a 1-under 69 on Friday, leaving him just four strokes off the lead. But there’s intriguing storylines all around. (Except for the home country. England lost three of its top players to the cut.)
There was plenty of experience, from 40-somethings Clarke, Thomas Bjorn, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Davis Love III to 52-year-old Tom Lehman.
There were plenty of big names, including Phil Mickelson and a rejuvenated Sergio Garcia, back chasing his first major title.
There was no shortage of major champions, led by the four who reign currently: Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and, of course, McIlroy, eager to add the claret jug to his crown from Congressional.
He survived the first two days, catching the wrong end of the draw and winding up with the most difficult weather conditions both days.
“It was a grind,” McIlroy said. “It would be nicer to be a couple better, but I’ll take that going into the weekend. I’m very happy with my position.”
A lot of guys were.
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’ss 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. “I hope it comes in.”
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 survived a few more hiccups on his way to another 2-under 68.
Glover, playing the kind of golf that won him a U.S. Open two years ago, has made only three bogeys in the opening two rounds. He had a 70 to join Clarke in the lead at 4-under 136.
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 Thomas 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 (72) was joined at 137 by PGA champion Kaymer (69), Chad Campbell (68) and Jimenez (71). The 29 players within four shots of the lead included McIlroy, who met his goal of getting to even par for the tournament with a spectacular save from a buried lie in the pot bunker in front of the 18th green.
McIlroy was playing Saturday for the third straight time with Rickie Fowler, a fellow 22-year-old who fought his way to a 70 and then summed up the state of this British Open going into the weekend.
“It’s basically a new tournament,” the American said.
Not so for England’s Luke Donald, who became the second No. 1 player this year to miss the cut in a major. His hopes ended when his ball plugged so badly in a bunker on the 17th that he had to play back toward the fairway, only to see it roll back into the sand. Donald at least was in good company.
Another Englishman, second-ranked Lee Westwood, also missed the cut and refused to speak to reporters. Yet another home-country favorite, Ian Poulter, headed home after a 78.
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, then the tournament is still wide open for an awful lot of players.”
So many players, in fact, that it was easy to overlook Mickelson, who has never fared well at the British Open and suddenly finds himself within three shots of the lead going into the weekend.
The eclectic mix of contenders still includes 20-year-old amateur Tom Lewis, who shared the lead with Bjorn after the first round with a 65 and held it together until the end of Day 2. He three-putted the 17th and was fortunate to make bogey on the final hole, his approach shot headed out of bounds until it struck a fence post and ricocheted back onto a gravel road.
He shot 74, and was still only three shots behind.
On the other end of the spectrum was 61-year-old Tom Watson, who put on another memorable show with a hole-in-one on the sixth hole. He hit a pure 4-iron from 160 yards into the wind that took one hop and banged off the pin before dropping into the cup.
“They’re all lucky when they go in,” Watson said. “But that’s what I was aiming at.”
McIlroy was the favorite going into the British Open, and it’s hard to rule him out now. At times the kid looked as though he was ready to make a move, only to miss a key putt or find a bunker that led to bogey.
Even so, McIlroy wasn’t too far from where he needed to be.
He had plenty of company.