The nearly flawless magic of Rory McIlroy somewhat overshadowed an extraordinary Friday of golf at the British Open, on Hoylake's Royal Liverpool links.
McIlroy, the young Northern Irishman with a silky swing and a flair for going low in major tournaments, shot his second consecutive 66. That put him 12 under par and four shots ahead of Dustin Johnson, whose 65 was the best score of the tournament.
McIlroy is 25 and has already won two major titles, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA. He won both those tournaments by eight shots.
"Rory is a wonderful player," said Sergio Garcia, a fellow European Ryder Cup team member. "We all know that, and we know how difficult it will be to beat him."
Garcia is among those best positioned in the chase. Sparked by an eagle two from the rough on the par-four second hole — the same hole on which he made a similar shot the last time the British Open was here in 2006 — was one of six players at six under par and six shots back of McIlroy.
Others were South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, both former major champions; U.S. players Ryan Moore and Rickie Fowler, and Italy's Francesco Molinari.
Johnson's 65, like McIlroy's 66, was built around towering drives and good putting. Like McIlroy, Johnson birdied three of the four par fives.
"I had a lot of fun out there today," Johnson said. "I jut tried to stay relaxed. I'm swinging really well."
Tiger Woods blew up to a 77, and after a triple bogey on No. 17, he made his only birdie of the day to make the cut right on the number, two over. Playing his first major since his March 31 back surgery, he remained both hopeful and realistic.
"I'm pretty far back," he said. "Luckily, I've got two rounds to go, and hopefully, I can do something like Paul [Lawrie] did in 1999. He made up, I think, 10 in one day."
Woods also knows that making that up against McIlroy might be a stretch.
"Once he gets going," Woods said, "he can make a lot of birdies."
Phil Mickelson was also part of the extraordinary day, as was Tom Watson.
Mickelson, the defending champion, shot a 70 to go with his opening 74 and did it in typical stunning style. On No. 10, a par five, he hit his drive out of bounds. That meant he was hitting three off the tee. His second shot was a two-iron that stopped six feet from the pin and Mickelson made the putt. What would have been an eagle without the penalty turned into a five, and Mickelson called it "a crazy saved par."
Watson shot his second 73 and, like Woods, made the cut on the number. He made a birdie on the par-four 14th, one of the toughest holes on a very tough course, and merely had to two-putt for par on No. 18 to stay in the tournament.
"I came over here with a purpose," Watson said. "I wanted to see if an old guy could play on the weekend."
Watson is 64. He has won five British Opens, finished second as recently as 2009, at age 59, and, by making the cut, broke his own record for oldest player to make the British cut. When he made it two years ago, that broke the record of Bob Charles, who was 60 when he made it in 1996. Watson had made it, at age 62, in 2012 at Royal Lytham and St Annes.
This will not be Watson's final British Open. He has been given a special waiver — past champions usually can play only until they are 60 — to play a grand finale next year at St. Andrews. He has never won there.
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