Rory McIlroy exorcised his Friday demons in style in the second round of the 143rd Open Championship as Tiger Woods almost paid the ultimate price for abandoning the tactics which previously brought him victory at Royal Liverpool.
A round of 77 left Woods 14 shots adrift of halfway leader McIlroy, who carded a second consecutive 66 to finish 12 under par, matching Woods’s halfway total of 132 in 2006.
Woods famously used his driver just once in 72 holes on his way to a third Open title eight years ago and was similarly circumspect in an opening 69 on Thursday.
However, wayward drives on the first two holes and an even worse one out of bounds on the 17th meant the 14-time major winner had to birdie the 18th – his only one of the day – just to be sure of making the halfway cut.
Woods missed the cut on his return from back surgery in the Quicken Loans National last month and holing from six feet on the last means he has still to make early exits from consecutive events in his professional career.
The 38-year-old’s last round in a major championship without a birdie had come on the opening day of the 2010 US Open.
American Dustin Johnson shot a flawless 65 to lie four behind McIlroy, whose Ryder Cup team-mates Sergio Garcia and Francesco Molinari, South African major winners Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen and American pair Rickie Fowler and Ryan Moore were two shots further back on six under.
McIlroy had made an unfortunate habit of following good rounds on Thursday with bad ones on Friday in 2014, the latest example being scores of 64 and 78 in the Scottish Open last week.
A similar sequence at the Memorial at Muirfield Village even had tournament host Jack Nicklaus asking ‘How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?’.
In total he was 50 under par in the first round and nine over par in the second until carding seven birdies and just one bogey yesterday to boost his chances of becoming just the third player in the modern era – after Woods and Jack Nicklaus – to win three majors by the age of 25.
“Hopefully I put that to bed,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t have that in my head at all.
“Going out there I just wanted to play another solid round of golf, stick to my game plan, stick to doing what I do well and I went out there and executed the game plan the way I wanted to.”
It is the first time McIlroy has led at halfway in a major since the 2011 US Open, which he went on to win by eight shots after rewriting the record books at Congressional.
He also won the 2012 US PGA Championship by the same margin.
“I don’t know if I can describe it. It’s just like I have an inner peace on the golf course,” he said of his front-running abilities. “I’m very comfortable in this position. I wish I could get into it more often. If I’m able to do it a few times a year, that’s nice.
“I think it’s a combination of confidence and being mentally strong, mentally aware of everything.”
McIlroy led after an opening 63 at St Andrews in 2010 before adding a second round of 80 in atrocious conditions and might have feared the worst when he bogeyed the first, but with the wind dropping he regained the lead with a two-putt birdie on the fifth and moved two ahead with another birdie on the sixth.
Even the distraction of a pheasant wandering across the eighth green as he lined up another birdie putt failed to prevent McIlroy from picking up another shot, while he carded four more birdies on the back nine, aided by a drive of almost 400 yards on the 17th.
In contrast, Woods pulled his opening drive so badly that it ended in thick rough to the left of the fairway on the adjacent 18th, from where he missed the green with his approach and ended up taking a double bogey.
He also found rough on the second to bogey and a run of 14 straight pars was then followed by a wild drive out of bounds on the 17th.
A triple-bogey seven suddenly dropped him outside the cut line and it took typical determination to birdie the last and make the weekend.
“I was trying to be bolder, more aggressive,” Woods said. “I figured it was a chance where I could go out and be aggressive but I just didn’t drive the ball well.”
Woods was left hoping he could produce something similar to Paul Lawrie’s comeback from 10 off the lead with just a round to play at Carnoustie in 1999 – and at least might have the same weather to do so.
A “disruptive” forecast for a significant risk of thunderstorms has forced the R&A to use a two-tee start for the first time in the championship’s history, with play due to start at 9am off the first and 10th tee in groups of three.
American challenger Johnson is excited about the prospect of challenging for his first major over the weekend after storming into contention.
The 30-year-old will play with McIlroy in the final pairing on the third day at Hoylake.
Johnson said: “I am always excited to be in the mix.
“I had a lot of fun out there and tried to stay relaxed. I am swinging really well and felt comfortable over the golf ball. I am looking forward to it.
“I’m glad I’m in the last group and playing with Rory – but I’ve got to go out and play my game. I can’t worry about what he is doing.
“I’ll just go out there and try to shoot a good number.”