Friday afternoon groups beat up by mighty Muirfield

Phil Mickelson gestures as he stands on the second green during the second round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

Phil Mickelson gestures as he stands on the second green during the second round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

GULLANE, Scotland –- A spectacular blue sky stretched endlessly. Sun poured from above. Warmth didn’t envelope you, it wrapped you in a bear hug. Never did it feel so good to be out early on a Scottish summer night.

Too bad things had to be ruined by playing Muirfield’s dastardly back nine.

At least, that’s what players with the latest tee times might have been thinking as they closed out Friday’s second round of the 142nd Open Championship. Sun-splashed though the afternoon and early evening was, those in the latest games were bathed in two other colors – black and blue.

You think wide roads are rare in this part of the world? You should have tried finding smiles between 7 and 8:30 p.m. Clenched teeth and cold stares? They were plentiful, but nothing of the other variety, and the reason was simple: With Muirfield’s already-brown terrain having been baked six shades darker, those in the late wave not only couldn’t figure out how to stop approach shots from hundreds of yards away, they couldn’t navigate putts from inside of 6 feet.

Welcome to the firmest, fastest, and most fiery Open Championship since 2006 Hoylake. Are we having fun?

“Every hole is playing difficult,” said Dustin Johnson, who was out in Game 39, which began at 1:45. “You don’t get any breaks. You’ve really got to grind it out. It’s tough off the tee. It’s tough on your approach shot. It’s tough putting.”

Other than that, nothing to it, eh?

“It’s brutal out there,” said Sir Nick Faldo, who has to be thankful he was here in a ceremonial role, because had he been in a competitive frame of mind . . . well, he’d probably have left the clubs at home and chosen his television job. “It just wears you out.”

Shocking that this may sound, but Phil Mickelson probably agrees with Faldo – and with good reason. Having shot 69 Thursday to sit in a share of ninth place, Mickelson was out at 2:45 p.m. and from the very beginning it was a struggle. He needed three shots to reach the green at the par-4 second, then three-putted for a double. He birdied the par-3 fourth, but three-putted for bogey at the par-3 sixth. He birdied the ninth, but bogeyed the 10th.

The tug-of-war continued when he birdied the 11th, but after a string of pars, Mickelson factored prominently in the twilight zone-like happenings that piled up. We’ll return to his adventures, but first, a guy who sort of set the tone for a wild evening of golf – Brandt Snedeker.

Nearly a winner in this major last summer, Snedeker looked to be in superb form, his opening 68 backed by an outward 36. He was 3-under as he turned to the back, but then came the Twilight Zone. “Beyond anything I’ve ever played in,” he said.

A bogey at 10 was erased by a birdie at 12, but at 13 Snedeker went on a skid he couldn’t reverse. Bogeys at 13 and 14 hurt, but then came the killer – a four-putt triple bogey at the 15th. By now, Snedeker was mystified.

“I don’t know what we’re supposed to do to hit a green,” said Snedeker, who watched a handful of approaches find the putting surface, only to roll long or wide. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it.”

Compounding his woes, Snedeker doubled the par-4 18th and matched his worst Open Championship score, 79, to tumble badly. Tied for fourth and just two off the lead to begin, Snedeker fell into a share of 42nd, eight behind.

Hugely disappointed, he maintained his composure. There are 36 holes left and he looked at the big picture. “You can’t complain about it,” Snedeker said. “Guys survived it, so it’s not like it’s unplayable.”

Maybe it wasn’t unplayable, but it sure looked that way if you followed the guys atop the leaderboard. Two players, Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera, took turns with the lead, only to stumble badly down the stretch. The details:

• Johnson, who led by one after opening with 66, recovered from an outward 38 to birdie 12 and 13 and again he was 5-under and in the lead. Out in Game 46, he then bogeyed 14, three-putted from 8 feet to double 15, and he closed out a 75 with a bogey at 18. He fell into a share of sixth, two back.

• Cabrera, out in Game 47 at 3:18, birdied three times going out and was 4-under, tied for the lead as late as the 13th hole. But the two-time major winner bogeyed the 14th, then watched in bewilderment as his wedge from the middle of the fairway at 15 landed in the middle of the green, but never stopped till it was long and right. Bogey. When he, too, bogeyed the 18th, his round of 72 left him at 1 under, tied for sixth.

By the time Cabrera closed out his round just after 8:30 p.m., the weather was still perfect – which hardly matched the mood. Seven of those who began the day in the top 10 – Zach Johnson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Dustin Johnson, Mickelson, and Cabrera – had navigated Muirfield’s back nine when it was borderline impossible. Only Jimenez, your leader at 3 under, and Dustin Johnson matched par of 35; the other five went a cumulative 18 over, with Snedeker’s 43 the lowlight.

All of which brings us back to the inimitable lefthander, Mickelson, who played three games behind Snedeker. He avoided the disaster that befell Snedeker at the 15th, but the 16th? No such luck. Having reached the green, Mickelson lagged his lengthy birdie try up to 3 feet. From there, well, let him explain.

“The tough thing abut that particular putt for me was that it was in a direct crosswind,” Mickelson said. “So, I’ve got a left-to-right breaking putt and the wind was directly left-to-right.”

He said he hit a solid putt, but it rolled a few feet by. “And the same thing happened on the way back,” he said. “I just didn’t lay for enough break on the direct crosswind.”

The four-putt double-bogey was cushioned by a par-par finish, but with a round of 74 – 143, Mickelson finished the day joint 11th, now four back.

Certainly stung by double-bogeys early and late, Mickelson quickly put the round behind and put a positive spin on things. The sun was still drenching this seaside area, so it wasn’t hard for Mickelson find silver linings everywhere.

“I fought hard today. I putted phenomenal to stay in the tournament,” he said. And there was this: “The great thing about (Saturday’s third round) is that all the players who are in contention will be on the course at the same time.”

And when they all reach the back together, a good time should be had by all.

Yeah, right.

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