Tiger Woods moved ominously into position last night to reclaim the Open crown and his status as the world’s best golfer.
On a day when an unheralded American, who likes a pint of local ale in the Lancashire pubs, and a steady Australian threatened to make the Open a two-horse race, Woods reminded everyone of his incomparable will to win.
With Brandt Snedeker and Adam Scott pulling clear in benign conditions, three-time champion Woods emerged out of the pack to rein them in with two birdies in his closing three holes.
The second was a pitch in from a greenside bunker on 18 that the 14-time major winner greeted with a customary fist pump.
The subsequent roars from the stands echoed around the Lytham links.
Snedeker and Scott have played sublimely, particularly the American who sank every putt he looked at en route to equalling Nick Faldo’s record for the lowest 36-hole mark of 130, set 20 years ago at Muirfield.
But in a chasing pack that includes British major winners Paul Lawrie and Graeme McDowell, it is Woods’s name that looms largest in the leaders’ rear-view mirror.
The disappointing absence of Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood from the leaderboard – they both narrowly made the weekend – and Luke Donald, who is eight shots back, only served to heighten the drama of Woods’s late charge in the fading evening sunshine.
“I’m very pleased at where I am at the halfway point. I’m right there in the mix,” said Woods, who is three shots adrift of Scott, and four back from Snedeker.
“With the weather forecast, it’s going to be a good weekend.
“I had a game plan that has worked so far on this golf course. It was one I could execute and it’s worked so far.
“A golf course like this can punish you so you have to put the ball in the fairway.”
Woods only used his driver once yesterday, and when he pulled the three-wood out of his bag he did so only for “a little softy”.
He has not won a major for four years but has been rediscovering his form this year with three wins on the US PGA Tour.
His name on the leaderboard does not guarantee a 15th major title – after all he shared the halfway lead at last month’s US Open only to fall away considerably.
But it was still an emphatic statement of intent that he delivered yesterday.
Until Woods’s intervention, it was looking like only the 30mph winds forecast for tomorrow’s final round would blow Snedeker and Scott off course.
The latter built on his opening 64 with a 67 that included a timely birdie at the last.
But it was Snedeker who made the biggest impression by matching the Australian’s opening round of 64.
Snedeker, 31, from Tennessee, had never broken 70 on his three previous visits to the Open, amassing a cumulative total of 25 over par in missing the cut on each occasion.
But he fell in love with links golf in a practice round with the great Tom Watson at Birkdale four years ago, and is determined to forge some lasting memories this week.
“I could have said I don’t like playing the British Open and not come back, but I love it so I still come,” said Snedeker, who missed last month’s US Open after he broke a rib while coughing.
“I enjoy the local ales, I enjoy being here, I enjoy the lifestyle and the golf.”
Snedeker had a dream day on the greens, confessing to holing everything he looked at from 25 feet. His game plan, which differed vastly from the conservative, patient approach of most, is to get the ball to the green as quickly as he can, such is his confidence in his ability with the short stick.
A sustained challenge at the Masters four years ago will serve him well this weekend as he looks to become the third successive American after Tom Lehman and David Duval to win at Lytham.
“It’s a great feeling, a great experience, but it gets you a whole lot of nothing,” he said of his halfway lead. “If the wind blows no lead is safe.”
Snedeker’s rise up the leaderboard illustrates the unpredictable state which has gripped golf since Woods’s fall from grace in 2009.
With 15 different winners of the last 15 majors, and first-time champions in each of the last 10, forecasting who will win one of the game’s big prizes is becoming as difficult as predicting what the weather will be.
Yesterday was supposed to be brighter on the Lancashire coast, but the sun only came out late on.
Yesterday was also the day when the big names of European golf were expected to charge.
But McIlroy faltered badly with a 75 and Westwood was left nervously watching to see if he would make the cut after a level-par 70.
While unknown Dane Thorbjorn Olesen surged to five under late on, and Lawrie continued his renaissance, the home attention shifted to Ulsterman McDowell.
Now comfortable contending in the majors, after nearly adding a second US Open title last month, he is hoping the 30-degree wind forecast for tomorrow materialises.
“There’s a lot of golf ahead of us,” said McDowell, who is four under.
“The last few groups of a major championship is where I want to be and I’m right where I need to be going into the weekend.
“Contending is a habit that you get into.
“What happened at Olympic confirmed to me that I’m good in those situations. I handle my emotions well. The only man I’m afraid of is me.”