An early taste of wind and rain on Friday threatened to reveal the Old Course’s teeth but, in the end, all that false dawn achieved was to highlight the elderly links’ dentures. Dustin Johnson is hardly known for his smile from him either but, on a day of formidably low scoring, the two-time major champion led the morning assault on the leaderboard before Cameron Smith put a sliver of daylight between himself and the field as the sun set over St Andrews.
Looks can be deceiving and the Australian world No 6, with a mullet so unkempt it might pique the interest of a Highlands sheep shearer, cut a route through the pot bunkers with the precision of a razor blade. A round of 64 took him to 13-under-par and ensured The Players champion of a two-shot lead over Thursday’s overnight leader, Cameron Young. The likes of Johnson, Scottie Scheffler and Tyrrell Hatton might have expected to be in closer pursuit after standout rounds in the morning wave, but Smith managed to push back the tide and then some.
After starting with a hat-trick of birdies, the 28-year-old made the turn in 31 and might have taken a share of the major championship scoring record that Rory McIlroy equaled in 2010 were it not for his putt pulling up short at the last. He will still need to fend off the Northern Irishman, though, who is tied with Viktor Hovland at 10-under but had almost fallen off the first page of the leaderboard by the time he finally got his second round underway at 2.59pm. McIlroy has contended and then faltered at all three majors this year but, after a steady if unspectacular start, he burst into life at the turn after driving the green at the 10th hole. His back-nine of him included four birdies, the pick of them coming at the Road Hole, and he received an almighty roar of support at the last from those who’d stayed deep into the evening.
Even that cheer couldn’t compare to the feverish atmosphere that greeted Tiger Woods earlier in the afternoon. The 46-year-old might be a deity to those who came hoping for a miracle – or to at least catch a final glimpse – but the golfing gods had been cruel from the off when Woods found a divot and then the Burn on Thursday. A round of 78 had already rendered any prospect of making it to the weekend obsolete and a 75 seemed destined to strain sore joints rather than source any genuine pleasure.
There was no wave goodbye as he crossed the Swilcan Bridge but tears filled Woods’s eyes as he strode down the 18th fairway and was met with an ovation that may well surpass what the winner experiences on Sunday. He afterwards admitted this will likely be his last Open de el at St Andrews and was reluctant to be drawn on when we might see him next. What remained obvious was that Woods’ vulnerability here did nothing to diminish his aura from him. In fact, allowing the public to peer a little behind the barricade only made him endearing as well as admired.
The present waits for no man, though, not even Tiger Woods, and the biggest shift in golf’s landscape since his emergence remains at the forefront of this tournament. For a while, those players who flawed LIV Golf were written off as over the hill or of ailing ambition. But while threats persist over bans from the majors, Johnson was joined near the top of the leaderboard by Talor Gooch and Sadom Kaewkanjana, while Abraham Ancer, Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia all enjoyed stellar second rounds.
Never one to be knowingly understated, having recently compared the atmosphere at a LIV event to the Ryder Cup, Gooch said he had been galvanized by the talk of division and derision. “It’s obviously cool for me to see other [LIV] guys that are out there playing well,” he said. “We’ve caught a lot of flak for what we’ve done here recently. Everybody, it feels like, is against us, and that’s OK. It’s kind of banded us together.” That good grace wasn’t extended to Phil Mickelson. The 52-year-old missed the cut after a torrid back-nine and slunk away as little more than a footnote with a weary thumbs up.
There were still some genuine feelgood stories to savor. Sheffield-born amateur Barclay Brown finished on six-under after a fine round of 70, keeping him on even keel with his local role model and US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. David Carey, the world No 912 from Ireland, is in a tie for 18th after a round of 67, having only walked the Old Course for the first time last Sunday. It promises to be a thrilling weekend with plenty more low scoring, but the pace was set on Friday and it will take some performance to reel in the flying strands of Smith’s mullet.
- -13: Smith
- -11: Young
- -10: McIlroy, Hovland
- -9: D Johnson
- -8: Scheffler, Hatton
- -7 Gooch, Scott, Cantlay, Theegala