Rory McIlroy exorcised his Friday demons in style as Tiger Woods almost paid the ultimate price for abandoning the tactics that previously brought him victory at Royal Liverpool in the second round of the 143rd British Open.
Woods famously used his driver just once in 72 holes on his way to a third Open title in 2006 and was similarly circumspect in an opening 69 on Thursday.
But it was wayward drives that left the 14-time major winner needing to birdie the 18th – his only birdie of the day – just to make the 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.
A round of 77 left Woods 14 shots adrift of leader McIlroy, who carded consecutive 66s to finish 12 under par, matching Woods’s halfway total of 132 in 2006.
McIlroy has made a habit of following good Thursday rounds with bad Friday ones in 2014, the latest example being scores of 64 and 78 in last week’s Scottish Open. A similar sequence at the Memorial at Muirfield Village had tournament host Jack Nicklaus asking, “how can you shoot 63 and then 78?”
For the year in total he was 50 under par in the first round and nine over par in the second until Friday carding seven birdies and just one bogey to boost his chances of becoming the third player in the modern era after Woods and Nicklaus to win three majors by age 25.
After his round, McIlroy played down his Friday form, telling the BBC: “You guys were making a bigger deal out of it than I was. But, yeah, I played really well. Overall, another, really, really good day.”
It is the first time McIlroy has led at the halfway in a major since the 2011 US Open, which he won by eight shots to rewrite the record books at Congressional and record his first major victory.
McIlroy could have been forgiven for fearing the worst yesterday when he bogeyed the first hole after overshooting the green, but with the wind dropping he regained the lead with a two-putt birdie on the fifth and moved two ahead with another 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
He said: “There’s a first time for everything. I’m sure there have been some swans or geese or something but never a pheasant.”
He also birdied 10 before a surprise miss from four feet on 11.
The Northern Irishman did then hole from that distance on the 15th after a superb tee shot and a drive of almost 400 yards on the 17th to set up another, while he pitched to four feet on the last to end in style.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have this feeling at majors before and hopefully I’ll be able to do it again,” he said. “It gives me a lot of confidence, I haven’t been in this position before in an Open championship though I feel really in control of my golf game.”
In contrast, Woods pulled his opening drive into thick rough to the left of the fairway on the adjacent 18th, from where he missed the green with his approach and hacked his third shot onto the green and off the other side.
From there he chipped on and two-putted for a double bogey, while his drive on the second also found the rough and his approach ran off the green to lead to a bogey.
A run of 14 straight pars was then followed by a wild drive out of bounds on the 17th to run up a triple-bogey seven, which dropped him outside the cut line and it took typical determination to birdie the last and make the weekend.
“I didn’t hit the driver very good today. I was trying to be bolder, more aggressive,” he said. “With the wind the way it was I could take some bunkers out of play, get it down where I could hit sand wedge into the greens even from the rough.
“Angel [Cabrera, one of his playing partners] was doing that yesterday and did it quite effectively with a different wind but this was a more difficult wind.
“I figured today was a chance where I could go out and be aggressive but I just didn’t drive the ball.
“It was not a very good round. I got off to a terrible start again. I had some opportunities to get back to even par for the day but I just never did, I never made anything.
“I had myself in good positions to make birdies and I didn’t do it.”
Woods will not publicly concede defeat but he would need a huge turnaround for him to get close. “It gives me a chance. I’m pretty far back,” he said. “Hopefully I can play well and give myself a shot going into the back nine on Sunday.”
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