Thursday 22 March 2018

Mickelson leads way as old heads defy elements

American pursued by Stenson and Kjeldsen at top of leaderboard on day for patience and experience at rain-lashed Troon

Rory McIlroy plays from a green-side bunker on the eighth hole during yesterday’s second round of The Open. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy plays from a green-side bunker on the eighth hole during yesterday’s second round of The Open. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The old boys' network of Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Soren Kjeldsen dominated the weather-beaten second day of the 145th Open Championship at Troon yesterday.

Their combined age totals 126, they are supposed to be past their best, but the terrific trio led the young tyros a merry dance around the venerable Ayrshire links layout.

Phil Mickelson acknowledges the crowd after putting on the 18th green. Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson acknowledges the crowd after putting on the 18th green. Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

If this were an age versus beauty contest, then the senior members of the golfing tribe showed the flat-bellied gym bunnies they still had a kick in them - and they don't want to stop there.

Mickelson, 46, shot 69 and moved the lead from a starting eight-under to ten-under par 132 by lunchtime to beat the 36-hole record for an Open at Troon by a shot.

Sweden's Stenson, 40, posted 65 to reach nine-under par, and the 2015 Irish Open champion Soren Kjeldsen, also aged 40, settled in joint third place on seven-under, alongside Keegan Bradley of the USA, each of them with a 68 yesterday.

Let's not forget another member of the 'Big Four-Oh' group, Zach Johnson, the reigning champion, who slotted into fifth place on his own at five-under par with a 70.


Big names struggled as the weather first proved tough, then difficult around the mid-morning, to brutal in the late afternoon as the later starters, including Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington Darren Clarke and Shane Lowry, got battered by winds of up to 40mph and lashing rain.

Harrington's comment - "I'd be pretty good in tough conditions, and level par for the tournament was the best I could have done" - reflected the difficulty shared by those on the early Thursday/late Friday segment of the draw.

McIlroy fought his way to a level-par 71 in the worst of the weather. He is eight shots behind leader Mickelson at two-under but still believes he can get himself into contention by the back nine tomorrow.

"I'm quite happy with my two rounds of golf. I feel like I've played very well," he said.

"I kept it together in the conditions quite well. On the back nine I had a bit of a bad run around the turn, you know, missed two short putts in a row on nine and 10.

"But I held it together nicely coming in, and played the last five holes at one-under par. So anything around even par right there this afternoon was a decent score."

Luck may play a role in which side of the draw a player operates from, but the golf still has to be played and McIlroy is ready to take what comes, particularly in this Championship.

"It's the Open Championship. Some draws go your way and some draws don't. The last Open I played, I got the good end of the draw and good things happened that week. Then this year it's not so much.

"But I just said out there, 'I'm not going to let being on the wrong side ruin my mood or ruin my week.' I feel like I've played very well and that gives me optimism going into the weekend, and I played the front nine well, especially.

"So if I can get off to a similar start tomorrow, and get a little closer to the leaders, play the back nine a little better, you never know," said McIlroy.

Leader Mickelson will not make it easy for the chasing pack. He is not fazed by his position at the head of the tournament, and the digits on his birth certificate are meaningless in his opinion.

"I think two things: One, I don't feel the pressure like probably a lot of players do to try to win the Claret Jug because I've already won it, and that takes a lot of pressure off me.

"The other thing is that I understand the age thing, but the fact is that from ten years ago, when I was playing my best golf, I'm 25 pounds lighter, I'm in better shape, I'm physically stronger than I was.

"I feel better and now that my swing is back on plane, I'm starting to hit some shots like I did ten years ago, and starting to play some of my best golf again," he said.

Stenson had four top-five placings in six Majors from the Open in 2013 to the 2014 US PGA Championship, and is delighted to contend once more.

"I haven't been in contention for the last six Majors and that was a big, big goal of mine to try and be up there and give myself a chance. So far, so good.

"I just wanted to turn things around because I know, like I said, I'm 40.


"I'm not going to play these tournaments forever and ever. I don't have another 50 goes at them. It might be a dozen or 15 in total.

"So I better start putting myself in position and giving myself chances if I want to make it happen," he said.

Kjeldsen grew up playing rough weather in Denmark, and can handle anything the weather throws at him, as he proved at Royal County Down last year when winning the Irish Open. Driving woes undermined his confidence a few years ago, but he's now back on song and loving the vibe of challenging for Tour titles.

"I had a couple of problems in my game that I struggled to solve and turning 40, you certainly heard that story before when people get to 40 and then it's downhill from there.

"So I was fighting pretty hard, but determined to get through, and it's nice being in this position now," he said.

A seven-shot spread from Mickelson's ten-under to three-under par covers the top 14, and, much to everyone's surprise, the top three in the world, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, are not among them.

Johnson is at two-under, thanks to his 69 yesterday, while Day is on 143 (one-over), and Spieth, who had a torrid time with his putting, made the cut on the mark of four-over.

"I felt like I swung it really well all day. Hit a lot of great shots, so I'm looking forward to this weekend," said Johnson.

Day (70) commented: "Phil has been playing some tremendous golf over the last two days.

"I've just got to keep trying to get myself back into contention somehow."

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