SOUTHPORT, England (AP) — The flags around Royal Birkdale flapped in the stiff breeze Friday morning. A light mist fell from the gray clouds, which obscured any hint of the sun.
Apparently, good weather for a Shark.
Greg Norman, a 53-year-old newlywed, claimed the lead in the second round of the British Open. He birdied three holes on the front side to offset a double-bogey at the gargantuan sixth, leaving him as the only player with an overall score in the red.
Norman was 1 under as he made the turn, one stroke ahead of Fredrik Jacobson, Peter Hanson and Simon Wakefield. Thirteen others were within three shots of the leader, with a host of top players still hours away from teeing off and hoping to avoid the cold, soaking rain and howling winds that made life miserable for the early starters Thursday.
Jean Van de Velde, still remembered for his epic 72nd-hole collapse at Carnoustie nine years ago, briefly surged into contention, only to get swallowed up by this links course along the Irish Sea. He played the front side at 2-under 32, then fell back with a couple of double-bogeys on the back side.
The focus was again on the weather for day two of golf’s oldest major, with the early starters racing to get in as many holes as possible before another expected round of storms swept in. The forecast called for potentially heavy showers throughout the day on top of an ever-more-menacing wind, a possible repeat of Thursday morning.
Norman, who shot a par 70 in the opening round, birdied the very first hole but ran into trouble at No. 6, the 499-yard layout that’s listed as a par 4 for some reason. He knocked his second shot into the thick rough right of the fairway – near the spot where Phil Mickelson lost a ball the previous day – and hacked out short of the green. A chip and two putts later, he walked off with a 6.
But Norman, cheered on by his new wife, former tennis great Chris Evert, bounced right back. He rolled in a 25-foot birdie at the seventh, then watched a 15-footer at No. 8 curl slowly toward the cup and drop in on the very last turn, raising his putter in the air to celebrate.
The first-round leaders – Rocco Mediate, Robert Allenby and Graeme McDowell shared the top spot after shooting 69 – failed to keep pace with Norman.
Mediate, a playoff loser at the U.S. Open, was even for the day through 10 holes, but fell two strokes behind Norman with a double-bogey at No. 11.
Allenby was three back, starting his round with two straight bogeys and taking another at the seventh. McDowell also was struggling, playing the front nine at 2 over and starting the back with two straight bogeys to fall to 3 over.
Sergio Garcia, looking to bounce back from a devastating playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at last year’s Open, missed a 3-footer to save par at the first but wasn’t thinking about that when he rolled in a 75-foot birdie at No. 4. The Spaniard was three strokes behind Norman.
Van de Velde was playing the Open for the first time since 2005, and just the second time in the past seven years. But he’s still haunted by the ghost of Carnoustie, where he went to the final hole of regulation with a three-stroke lead, only to recklessly throw it away by trying to finish off his first major title with a flourish.
He knocked his ball off a grandstand and into the Barry Burn, even taking off his socks to wade into the cold water with the hopes of hitting an impossible shot. He eventually thought better of that idea, but still wound up with a triple-bogey and went on to lose to Paul Lawrie in the playoff.
Van de Velde has never shied away from his legacy – one of the greatest collapses in sports history – and he’s never given up hope of writing a new chapter to the story. With only the 18th to play on Friday, he was five strokes behind Norman.
Then there’s Mediate, the 45-year-old everyman who has suddenly revitalized his career. He was on the cusp of his first major championship at Torrey Pines last month until Tiger Woods sank a birdie putt at the final hole on Sunday. They moved on to a playoff the next day, and Woods captured his 14th major title on the 19th hole.
Still, Mediate’s inspiring play and “what the heck am I doing here” demeanor turned him into the darling of the gallery, and he showed through his first day at Royal Birkdale it was no fluke.
“I have no explanation for that whatsoever. No idea why that happened,” Mediate said after walking off the course Thursday with the share of another major lead. “It was just one of those rounds. It was just up and down, up and down, and a couple of birdies, and here we are.”
Mediate was one of the lucky ones Thursday. Most of the players who went off in the morning struggled mightily in horrible conditions, including Ernie Els – who was rated as one of the favorites but left with an 80 on his scorecard, the highest score of his sterling Open career.
Vijay Singh also shot 80 – and didn’t even feel he played that poorly – while Mickelson was barely hanging on after losing his ball in the prickly rough at No. 6 and going on to a 79, Lefty’s worst start at a tournament that always seems to give him problems.
By the afternoon, the rain stopped, the wind tapered off a bit and the scores dropped dramatically. All but two players in the top 14 had an afternoon tee time.
“Obviously,” McDowell said, “we got pretty lucky.”