SANDWICH, England – Rory McIlroy doesn’t really need incentive to win the Open Championship, but the sight of a familiar figure at the top of the leaderboard might just provide a little extra motivation to lift the old Claret Jug.
Darren Clarke is in a position he should have been in many times before the world had ever heard of Rory McIlroy. Clarke’s only real tilt at Open glory came in the 1997 Open Championship at Royal Troon. He led going into the final round but shanked a tee shot onto the beach at the second hole and finished runner-up.
McIlroy trails boyhood hero Clarke, a fellow Ulsterman, by four shots after a second-round 69 that has him standing at level par. However, McIlroy expects to finish ahead of the man who mentored him as a boy.
“He’s doing a bit better than me at the moment, but I plan on changing that,” McIlroy said.
British bookmakers agree.
British gambling house Ladbrokes has McIlroy as second favorite at 8-to-1 odds behind Germany’s Martin Kaymer on 6-1. Joint leaders Clarke and Lucas Glover are listed at 14-1.
McIlroy had to work hard to keep Clarke in his sights. The reigning U.S. Open champion offset four birdies with three bogeys in his 69 on a day when the field found it hard to score on Royal St. George’s.
“Even though it was sunny and it looked nice out there, it was very tricky,” McIlroy said. “The course was playing a lot firmer – a lot of cross winds. To shoot something in the 60s today, I’m very pleased with.
“I’ll take that. I’m very happy going into the weekend. I’m in striking distance of the leaders.”
With the cut falling at 3-over par, it means the entire field can catch Clarke and Glover.
“There’s only seven shots separating this field,” McIlroy said. “I think you will see a lot of chopping and changing at the top of the leaderboard. It’s the most open Open that I’ve seen in a long, long time.
“If you can keep it around even par with the weather that’s coming in tomorrow, something around that score is going to be very close.”
Heavy rain and strong winds are expected for the third round. That might just play into Clarke’s hands.
“This sort of golf really suits his game,” McIlroy said of the elder Northern Irishman. “He’s grown up on links and he likes to play different shots. It’s the sort of week where you have to manage your game very well. He’s really good at that.”
Clarke grew up at Royal Portrush, where the wind always blows.
McIlroy’s 69 could easily have been two shots better if not for a couple of lapses in concentration.
“The two times I made two birdies in a row, I followed it up with bogeys, which wasn’t great.”
One of those dropped shots came at the eighth hole after an uncharacteristic poor iron shot.
“I hit a bad second shot on eight and made bogey there. If I had hit a good shot there, I would have had a bit of momentum going into the middle part of the round.
“But you’re going to make bogeys out there, and you just have to accept that.”
The 22-year-old also looked like dropping a shot on the last hole when he found a plugged lie in a greenside bunker. He could only splash the ball out to 15 feet but managed to coax in the par putt.
“It was huge,” he said about his final shot. “I put myself under a lot of pressure to hole that putt. It makes me feel pretty good about myself going into the weekend.
“I can’t go out and be defensive. Four shots in 36 holes on this golf course in these conditions is nothing. I just need to keep doing the same things.
“Everything is working pretty well. It’s just a matter of keeping it tight and not hitting too many loose shots.”
And his thoughts on playing with Clarke in the final two-ball on Sunday?
“To be honest, I think I would rather play with somebody I don’t know too well so I can keep my mind on the task at hand.”