Southport, England — The flight of Jordan Spieth’s 3-wood from the light rough looked about as ugly as the weather at the British Open. The outcome was about as bright as his chances of getting his name on another major championship trophy.
Spieth seized control Friday at Royal Birkdale with a shot that he hit a little off the neck of his 3-wood. It was low and hot, and ran fast along the rain-soaked turf until it skirted by a pot bunker and rambled onto the green to set up an 18-foot eagle putt on the par-5 15th.
“I mishit the shot, which is probably why it looked so gross,” Spieth said. “I hit it low off the heel, which is easy to do when you’re trying to carve a cut. And it just … one hop, scooted around the group of bunkers there, and then it was obviously fortunate to get all the way to the green.”
Even in gusts that topped 30 mph and occasional downpours so strong that play was briefly stopped, Spieth managed a 1-under 69 to build a two-shot lead over Matt Kuchar going into the weekend.
Spieth was at 6-under 134. It was the 12th time he has been atop the leaderboard at a major, including the fourth rounds of the Masters and U.S. Open that he won in 2015. Spieth is the sole leader at a major for the first time since the third round of the Masters last year, when he was runner-up to Danny Willett.
“Anytime you’re in the last group on a weekend in a major … you get nervous. And I’ll be feeling it this weekend a bit,” Spieth said. “But I enjoy it. As long as I approach it positively and recognize that this is what you want to feel because you’re in the position you want to be in, then the easier it is to hit solid shots and to create solid rounds.”
Kuchar played in the morning in steadily strong wind, but without rain, and pieced together a solid round until a few mistakes at the end for a 71. He was at 4-under 136, and it would have been a good bet that he would be leading with the nasty weather that arrived.
“I think that’s what people enjoy about the British Open is watching the hard wind, the rain, the guys just trying to survive out there,” Kuchar said. “Today is my day. I get to kick back in the afternoon and watch the guys just try to survive.”
He wound up watching another short-game clinic from Spieth. The key to his round came in the middle, starting with a 10-foot par putt on No. 8 after he drove into a pot bunker. The biggest break came at No. 10, when the rain was pounding Royal Birkdale. Spieth hit into another pot bunker off the tee, could only advance it out sideways, and came up short of the green in light rough. He was looking at bogey or worse when he chipped in for par.
“Massive,” he said about the par. “Nothing said ‘4’ about this hole. I feel a little guilty about taking 4 on the card.”
And he wasn’t through just yet. Spieth rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt across the 11th green, and then after watching Henrik Stenson’s tee shot on the par-3 12th land softly, Spieth realized he could take on the flag. He hit 7-iron to 2 feet for another birdie, and followed that with a beautiful pitch to tap-in range for par on the 13th.
Even so, his work is far from over.
The chasing pack features U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who failed to make a birdie but stayed in the hunt with 16 pars in a 72, and Ian Poulter with his newfound confidence, which is growing even higher with the support of the English crowd. Poulter shot 70.
Not to be overlooked was Rory McIlroy, who recovered from a horrific start Thursday to salvage a 71, and then kept right on rolling. McIlroy, who was 5 over through the opening six holes of the tournament, ran off three birdies with full control of every shot on the front nine.
And much like Spieth, he kept his round together with crucial par saves when the wind was at its worse.
McIlroy posted a 68 and was at 1-under 139, only five shots behind with only five players in front of him.
“To be in after two days and be under par for this championship after the way I started, I’m ecstatic with that,” McIlroy said.
Stricker in, Mickelson out
Steve Stricker kept a personal streak alive by making the cut in the British Open, the 25th major championship since 2009 he has played on the weekend.
Former champions Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington weren’t as fortunate, heading home after failing to get inside the cut line of 5-over par.
Harrington came close, barely missing out on holing a chip on the final hole.
Mickelson, meanwhile, added a 77 to the 73 he shot in the first round to finish 10 over.
“Unfortunately, it’s the first cut I’ve missed this year,” Mickelson said.
“And I missed it with flair.”
Mickelson, with brother Tim on the bag in place of former longtime caddie Jim Mackay, looked as if he might make a run at playing on the weekend when he opened with a birdie on the first hole. But a triple-bogey 7 on the third hole set him back and he made four straight bogeys.
Sergio plays through pain
Sergio Garcia thought his British Open might be over after hurting his right shoulder angrily swinging a club into shrubs on the fourth hole at Royal Birkdale. The Masters champion clutched his shoulder after the incident and took a painkiller on the fifth tee. He spoke with a medical official on the seventh hole and his shoulder still felt sore at the end of his round.
“Obviously, I’m not happy about it,” said Garcia, “because I almost screwed up my British Open.”
The shoulder problem didn’t affect his power. Garcia drove the green on the 346-yard fifth and made eagle, and wound up shooting a 1-under 69. He was 2 over for the tournament, eight shots off the lead.
Garcia said he was frustrated after sending his tee shot at the par-3 4th to the back left of the green near some bushes. He didn’t have a full back swing and could only jab his second shot short of the green. After taking his shot, Garcia looked behind him and swung his club into the shrubs. He grabbed his shoulder with his left hand and grimaced with pain. He made bogey.
“Sometimes you are out there and you are trying your hardest. When you can’t do it, you get frustrated,” Garcia said.
Garcia said he played the fifth not knowing if he’d finish.