Biggest Questions Entering Moving Day at 2014 British Open
Two days down. Two days to go.
And at the halfway point of the 2014 British Open, it’s a guy who was born barely an hour’s flight away from the Royal Liverpool Golf Club—Northern Ireland native Rory McIlroy—who’s in the best position to add a third Grand Slam trophy to an already burgeoning career mantelpiece.
The precocious 25-year-old has been atop the leaderboard to close each of the first two rounds, and his 12-under par 132 through 36 holes gives him a four-shot edge over Dustin Johnson who's in second place and a high-profile-gaggle six shots behind that includes former major winners Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen and veteran contender Sergio Garcia.
McIlroy won the U.S. Open in 2011 and followed up with the PGA Championship in 2012, but he’s never finished better at the British Open than a tie for third behind Oosthuizen in 2010. In fact, he shot 79-75 last season and missed the cut at the Muirfield Golf Links in Scotland.
Here are the biggest questions leading into Saturday at the 143rd British Open.
Now That He’s Made the Cut, Will Tiger Woods Be a Factor?
The 14-time major champion woke up the echoes to at least some extent with a three-under par 69 on Thursday, but any hope of prolonged magic was cut short with a double bogey-bogey start on Friday.
As it turned out, Tiger Woods only survived to the weekend after scrambling for an up-and-down birdie on the 18th to get in at five over 77 for the day and two over 146 for the tournament—numbers that leave him, for all intents and purposes, just playing for show on Saturday and Sunday.
Still, though, he’s 14 shots behind a front-running McIlroy, a glint of old confidence remains.
“There are still two rounds to go and I’ll go out and try to do with Paul did in 1999,” he said at a post-round media gathering, referencing Paul Lawrie’s rally from 10 strokes down to a playoff victory.
The ESPN broadcast crew, particularly one-time major winner Paul Azinger, wasn’t so optimistic about Woods’ chance to be relevant here or successful in his quest to add to 14 major titles.
If he’s going to win majors, he’s got to figure out how to drive the ball better. He’s got to improve off the tee, or it’s just not going to happen. I used to think he could replace his knee and still win, but now I’m not so sure.
He may have over-engineered his golf swing. A golf swing takes a second-and-a-half, and there are a lot of things that can pop into that head in a second-and-a-half.
Is Sergio Garcia Primed for a Weekend Run?
The charismatic Spaniard was a shot behind eventual champion Woods after three rounds at Royal Liverpool in 2006 and ultimately tied for fifth at 11 under par, so there’s a precedent for success.
And though he was all over the map in Friday’s second round while pursuing McIlroy—going bogey, eagle and bogey in his first three holes, in fact—the birdie he made on the 18th to finish up at two under 70 was at least a gesture that he’s ready to put some pressure on McIlroy for 36 more holes.
Garcia finished in the top 10 at the British six times in seven tries from 2001 to 2007, but he has managed that feat just once in six subsequent attempts, including a missed cut in 2012 and a tie for 21st in 2013.
“Today was quite difficult, but I feel pretty confident,” Garcia told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi after the round.
Has the Time Arrived for a Rickie Fowler Breakthrough?
He’s been in the shadow of fellow 25-year-old McIlroy, but the California-born Rickie Fowler has managed to stay close after opening a major with two rounds in the 60s for the first time in 19 tries.
But the first-half trend merely continues a sterling run of major performances this season after he tied for the fifth at the Masters and took a second-place tie behind a rampaging Martin Kaymer at the U.S. Open, where Kaymer lapped the field to win by eight strokes.
Fowler missed the British cut last year at Muirfield, but he got as close as a fifth-place tie behind Darren Clarke at Royal St. George’s in 2011.
“I’m definitely trending the right way. My preparation for majors this year has been on point,” Fowler said to ESPN’s Rinaldi. “I’m definitely in a good position here. I’m looking forward to the weekend, and I’m definitely comfortable.”
Dustin Johnson Is Close Again, but Can He Close the Deal?
Perhaps coming off the pace will be the winning approach for the strapping 6’4” South Carolina native, Johnson, who’s held final-round major leads twice in his career but has never won.
He was three shots up, heading into the final 18 holes at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach before shooting 82 and tying for eighth. Then, he was a shot up after 17 holes in the final round at the PGA Championship a few months later before a penalty sent him reeling into a fifth-place tie.
He also finished tied for second the following year at the British.
This time around, he goes into Saturday four shots off McIlroy’s blistering 36-hole pace but appears ready to draw on past experience to help him.
“It’s a Saturday, and I’ve been here before,” he told ESPN’s Rinaldi after a course record-tying seven-under par 65 got him to eight-under for the tournament. “I can’t worry about what (McIlroy is) doing. I’ve got a pretty good game plan for this golf course, and it’s worked so far. I’m hitting it solid and hitting it on the green.”
Will the Saturday Weather Look Like British Open Weather?
The first 36 holes at Royal Liverpool have only intermittently looked like the British Open, thanks to a relative absence of the biting winds, pelting rains and miserable countenances typically seen.
But come Saturday in the town of Hoylake, it’s going to appear a little more familiar.
Forecasts call for a 10-degree drop from Friday’s high of 79 to a Saturday peak at 69, while the rain chances will leap to 100 percent, according to The Weather Channel.
It’s a factor that’s prompted two-time major champion Curtis Strange to suggest to his ESPN broadcast colleagues that the real tournament won’t begin until the weather gets ugly.
“Predictably great players today can turn into unpredictable players tomorrow,” he said. “Wait and get through tomorrow before we can say anything about anybody.”
Can Anyone, Close or Otherwise, Catch Rory McIlroy?
If he plays the way he did the first two days, it’s a definite no.
McIlroy not only drove, chipped and putted well, but he also recovered nicely. That was evidenced by a bogey on the first hole that was erased by three birdies before the turn and another five on the back nine to establish the comfortable, if not commanding, lead.
There were 31 players within four shots of his first-round lead but only one within that same range after two rounds. And amazingly, he missed a few putts as well that could have stretched the lead from four to six. If he indeed finishes the deal on the weekend, he'll Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to accomplish three-quarters of the career Grand Slam by age 25.
He’s accustomed to running away in the big ones after eight-shot wins for both his previous major titles.
“As soon as we asked a question about Rory McIlroy, he made four in a row,” ESPN’s Azinger said on Friday’s broadcast.
Moments later, studio colleague Scott Van Pelt said, “McIlroy is a man in complete control of his talents, and they are many.”
And if cool confidence is indicative, he believes it, too.
“You’re battling yourself. That’s the big thing,” McIlroy said to ESPN's Rinaldi after the round. “You’re battling your emotions. You don’t want to be ahead of yourself, and you can only control what you can control. I’ve been in this position before, and, thankfully, I’ve been able to get the job done.”