Former champion Rory McIlroy hailed one of his best rounds in the Open Championship after remaining in contention for a fifth major title at a windswept Royal Birkdale.
McIlroy was five over par after six holes of his opening round and seemed destined for a fourth missed cut in five events until a stern talking to from caddie JP Fitzgerald prompted a back-nine rally.
The world No 4 came home in 32 with three birdies in the last four holes and maintained that momentum yesterday.
Birdies on the first, third and sixth helped McIlroy reach the turn in 31, eight shots fewer than on Thursday, and although he dropped shots on the 13th and 15th, a birdie on the 17th helped the 28-year-old complete a superb 68.
“That’s right up there,” said McIlroy, who equalled the lowest score in major history with an opening 63 at St Andrews in 2010 and opened with consecutive 66s on his way to victory at Hoylake in 2014.
“It’s really tough out there. I was lucky enough to get off to that great start, but conditions got a little worse on the back nine.
“This south-east wind is the toughest on this course and I made a couple of bogeys, but really pleased to birdie 17.”
At one under par, McIlroy was just three shots off the clubhouse target set by American Matt Kuchar, who added a 71 to his opening 65, with Scotland’s Richie Ramsay on two under par after an excellent 70.
“I thought if I could keep it under par for the championship I am right there for the weekend,” McIlroy added.
“I went out and believed in myself from the first tee shot, hit it within 60 yards of the green and went from there. I saw a lot of quality out there, which was good.
“I just wanted to continue with that good feeling from the last few holes (on Thursday) and went out with that positivity and trust in myself and just need to keep that for the next two days. I cant wait.”
Playing alongside Kuchar, Ramsay – who qualified by finishing second in the Irish Open that benefits McIlroy’s foundation – carded 16 pars, one birdie and one bogey to add a 70 to his opening 68.
“It was some of the best golf I have played this year and I am just loving being out there,” the 34-year-old from Aberdeen said.
“It’s easy to say when you are playing good golf, but with Rickie Fowler in the group in front of us and Matt doing well the atmosphere was brilliant.”
Speaking about his elevated position on the leaderboard, Ramsay added: “It’s pretty cool isn’t it? You grow up and practice having a putt to win the Open.
“I’m in a position to compete for it, which is something I have needed to do to tick a box, to compete with the best players in the world. Whether I do that the next two days I don’t know, but I have to give 100 per cent and try to be the best I can be and take it from there.”
2015 champion Zach Johnson carded a brilliant 66 to zoom up the leaderboard and reach one over par. Fellow American Jamie Lovemark was level par after a 69, with Masters champion Sergio Garcia on two over after returning the same score, despite injuring his shoulder after lashing out at a gorse bush on the fourth.
McIlroy was climbing the leaderboard, England’s Paul Casey went in the reverse direction on his 40th birthday as he slumped out of contention on day two.
The world No 16, who ended Thursday one shot off the lead after a first-round 66, carded eight bogeys in a second-round 77 that saw him fall to three over par.
It made for an unpleasant birthday, which Casey had marked by wearing a specially branded pair of shoes with ‘PC’ and ‘40’ stitched into the left and right heels respectively.
Casey said: “Today was work on the golf course. Parties are a totally separate thing to golf.
“I didn’t strike it particularly well. In fact, I didn’t do anything particularly well.
“I think I struggled with the wind direction. It was coming from a very different angle. I have played it in this direction before so I should know it, but it was one of those days.”
Casey, who teed off at 8.25am, was especially frustrated because he felt he had got lucky with the weather.
He said: “The wind was as strong as I thought, but how we didn’t get wet... I saw the radar before I went out and it looked horrific. I thought it would dump (rain) on us, so if anything I was lucky.”
Phil Mickelson’s search for a first victory since the 2013 Open continues after the five-time major winner missed the halfway cut “with flair” at Royal Birkdale.
Mickelson, who was runner-up to Henrik Stenson last year after a thrilling duel at Royal Troon, carded four birdies, eight bogeys and a triple bogey in a second round of 77 that left him 10 over par.
“It’s just one of those things where if it starts going bad in these conditions, it’s just going to go bad,” said Mickelson, who made just one par in a back nine of 40. “It’s not that big a deal. Unfortunately it’s the first cut I’ve missed this year and I missed it with flair.
“I was surprised because I really thought Thursday I was prepared. I felt like I was ready. I thought I had a good game plan. I thought my game was sharp. But obviously it wasn’t.
“I’ve got this week off and I’ll see if I can get it sharp for Akron (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) and the (US) PGA.”
Mickelson opted not to play last week’s Scottish Open for the first time since 2009 and admitted: “I think playing a week before at the Scottish is very helpful and it may have made a difference.
“It’s hard to say, but this further proves that when I don’t play the week before a major, I often am not as sharp and ready to play as I need to be.”
Mickelson’s opening 73 was his first round in the Open without a birdie since the first round at Carnoustie in 1999.