SANDWICH, England — Darren Clarke marched along bumpy fairways on a wild ride at Royal St. George’s that was filled with blunders and brilliance, and one final birdie that brought the kind of ovation he had not heard in a decade at the British Open.
Right behind him was Lucas Glover, far more steady in closing his solid round with eight straight pars.
When a sun-baked and wind-blown second round finally ended Friday, they shared the lead in a major that is living up to its proper name.
The Open Championship is every bit of that.
Before anyone could get excited about the prospects of Clarke delivering yet another major to Northern Ireland, all it took was one look down the leaderboard — all the way to the bottom — to realize this championship was just getting started.
Only seven shots separated first from worst going into the weekend.
“There’s still two days of tough golf and tough weather ahead of us,” Clarke said.
Clarke, a forgotten figure as Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy captured the U.S. Open the past 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 in New York, has made only three bogeys in the opening two rounds. He had a 70 to join Clarke in the lead at 4-under 136.
“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,” Thomas Bjorn said. “You’ve just got to go out there and knuckle down and see where it gets you to on Sunday afternoon.”
Bjorn (72) was one shot behind along with PGA champion Martin Kaymer (69), Chad Campbell (68) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (71). The 29 players within four shots of the lead included U.S. Open champion Rory 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 will play today 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 starting (today),” Fowler said.
That won’t be the case for 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. Lee Westwood at No. 2 also missed the cut and refused to speak to reporters.
Even with a beloved figure like Clarke in the lead, nothing is drawing more attention than the weather.
The forecast is strong wind and increasing rain late in the morning, followed by heavy rain and even stronger gusts in the afternoon.
Depending on 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 Phil Mickelson, who has never fared well at the British Open and suddenly finds himself within three shots of the lead going into the weekend.
“I’m looking forward to that challenge, and I’m hoping I’ve got the shots now to be effective in it,” Mickelson said.
The eclectic mix of contenders still includes 20-year-old amateur Tom Lewis, who shared the lead after the first round with a 65 and held it together until the end of his round when he three-putted the 17th and was fortunate to make bogey on the final hole. His shot from the rough went over the green and was headed out of bounds until the ball hit the stake. 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, hitting 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.”
The group at 2-under 138 included a former Ryder Cup captain in Tom Lehman (67) and the current captain in Davis Love III (68). They were joined by Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who has experience with a crowded leaderboard. He was among eight players who had a share of the lead on the final day at Augusta National until he birdied the last four holes to win by two.
McIlroy was the favorite going into the British Open, and it’s hard to rule him out at only four shots behind. 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, he was right where he needed to be.
“I think you’ll see a lot of chopping and changing at the top of the leaderboard,” he said. “It’s the most open Open I’ve seen in a long time. Yeah, I think it’ll be excited to be a part of, and it’ll be excited to watch over the next two days.”
It wasn’t much fun for him to be watching from his house early Friday, when the day started under so much sunshine and so little wind that low scores were anticipated until the gusts arrived in the afternoon, about the time McIlroy was to tee off.
There were enough tricky pins to keep anyone from doing better than a 67, and as lunchtime approached, the wind shifted to the opposite direction and made the closing holes as tough as ever.
“It was a little bit more adventurous today,” Clarke said. “There was some good and some not-so-good. But overall, 68 is very pleasing.”
Equally pleasing was the ovation Clarke received on just about every green. He was runner-up in the Open at Royal Troon in 1997 and tied for third at Royal Lytham in 2001. Still strong are the memories from the Ryder Cup in Ireland five years ago, when he played a month after his wife died of cancer and went 3-0 at The K Club.
“The support I’ve had the first two days has been fantastic,” Clarke said. “The shouting and roaring, it’s been a while, but it’s been very enjoyable, and it’s definitely helped.”
There figures to be plenty more noise this weekend. The only mystery is for whom.