Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington flew The European Tour flag at the top of the leader board after an enthralling second day’s play in the 131st Open Golf Championship at Muirfield.
The South African and the Irishman finished amongst five players in a tie for the lead on six under par 136, Els carding a 66 whilst Harrington posted a 67 to join Americans Bob Tway and Duffy Waldorf and Shigeki Maruyama of Japan.
For Els, it was another step closer to finally realising his dream of having the Claret Jug placed into his grasp after having finished second at St Andrews in 2000 and third last year at Royal Lytham and St Annes.
Starting the day at one under par, the 32 year old South African set the tournament alight with a stunning outward half of seven under par 29, only one shot more than the record nine hole score of 28 in Open Championship history, carded by Denis Durnian at Royal Birkdale in 1983.
The two time US Open Champion made his intentions clear right from the off with three birdies in a row from the first. He followed that with further gains at the fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth, the highlight being a monster 50 foot putt from off the front of the green at the sixth.
However, the Big Easy could not keep up the ferocious pace turning for home and a couple of errors brought sighs of relief from the chasing pack. An approach shot through the back of the green at the 11th led to a bogey five and two shots in a treacherous greenside bunker at the 191 yard 13th yielded a bogey four.
The South African pulled his approach shot wide of the green at the 14th too but showed great courage to pitch out from the clinging rough to four feet before holing out to save par.
Another pulled drive at the 17th cost Els the chance of a birdie at the 546 yard 17th and when he drove into the bunker on the 18th, a par four and a share of the lead looked unlikely. But Els rose to the occasion magnificently, escaping from the trap down the fairway before firing his third shot to within three feet of the pin and holing out.
“You battle the nerves all the way but you just have to try and stay in the present and try and stay positive,” said Els. “You have got to try and calm yourself down and try and not get too carried away or too excited because there is still a lot of golf left to be played.”
Harrington, who showed his appetite for the big occasion with a top ten finish in last month’s US Open Championship at Bethpage State Park, also got off to a great start in his second round, birdieing three holes in a row from the second.
Although he dropped a couple of shots around the turn, the 30 year old Dubliner showed spirit to battle back with a birdie three at the 11th and a two putt birdie four at the 17th to book his place amongst the leaders.
One shot behind the leading group, the good news for The European Tour continued with three players in a tie for sixth place on five under par 137, Søren Hansen (69), Carl Pettersson (70) and Des Smyth (69).
Playing partners Hansen and Pettersson shared almost identical rounds to keep very much alive their hopes of a first Major title, both players having only two birdies on their cards. The only difference was that Pettersson, winner of the Algarve Open de Portugal in April, dropped a shot at the seventh, while Hansen, winner of the Murphy’s Irish Open last month, was flawless.
Smyth, whose victory in the 2001 Madeira Island Open saw him become the oldest winner on The European Tour International Schedule, continued to prove that age was no barrier to performance with another sterling effort.
The 49 year old carded three birdies and only one dropped shot and showed there was nothing wrong with his nerves on the big occasion by finishing with seven straight pars on Muirfield’s demanding back nine.
“I am very happy with the result even though I didn’t hit the ball as well as I did in the first round,” he said. “I reckon I was about four shots worse but a bit of scrambling and a bit of luck meant I was actually only one shot worse which was pretty good.
“I’m pretty excited at having only made two bogeys in 36 holes round here because there are some very difficult holes. But I just love this tournament, I love the buzz and everything about it. I came here to make the cut, I’ve done that, and now we’ll see what happens over the weekend. But one thing is for sure, I plan to enjoy it.”
Another man who thoroughly enjoyed his second round outing was Colin Montgomerie who re-ignited his challenge for the title in spectacular fashion with a superb seven under par 64, the best round of the week and his lowest ever round in a Major Championship.
It moved the 39 year old right back into contention on four under par 138 and completely banished the disappointment of his opening 74 to the delight of the Scot himself and the huge East Lothian crowds who cheered him onto every green on his way to a new course record on the lengthened Muirfield links.
A birdie three at the first suggested it might be his day and when he eagled the fifth and birdied the sixth and ninth to be out in 31, that feeling was well and truly confirmed.
Five par figures followed on the back nine before a monster putt dropped for birdie on the 15th and, after missing a chance for birdie on the 17th after a superb drive, the Scot made up in style on the last, a superb approach to seven feet paving the way for a closing birdie three.
“The putt at the last broke from left to right but I was just conscious of hitting it hard enough,” said Montgomerie. “In the end it went right in the middle which was very satisfying. All in all to go from three over par to four under on this golf course, is a very good effort indeed.
“At Lytham last year I received great support but maybe it is even better here. After a good start at Lytham I kind of dwindled but here I have come back and hopefully I can keep that going and continue to go forward. The people here were wonderful today so all credit to them.”
Montgomerie was joined in a tie for ninth place by three other European Tour Members, Thomas Björn (70), Thomas Levet (66) and Ian Poulter (69), as well as by the ominious figure of the World Number One Tiger Woods.
Aiming to complete the third leg of golf's Grand Slam after his victories earlier this season in the Masters Tournament and the US Open Championship, Woods had a quiet day scoring wise by his own high standards but three birdies and no bogeys in his 68 left him perfectly placed for his expected weekend charge.
There was further good news for The European Tour when no fewer than four Members moved into a tie for 17th place on shot further adrift on three under par 139, Warren Bennett (68), Darren Clarke (67), Ian Garbutt (70) and Retief Goosen (68), Clarke and Goosen in particular putting their indifferent opening rounds behind them in style.
Ulsterman Clarke, who opened with a one over par 72, soon went about putting matters right and the winner of the Compass Group English Open began his second round in spectacular fashion with two birdies and an eagle in his opening four holes.
Two other birdies followed at the ninth and tenth and although those were negated by bogeys at the sixth and 14th, Clarke did not drop any further shots and made his lunch taste a little better with a brave six foot putt for par on the 18th.
“I didn’t really have a target in mind when I went out because the course is that difficult you never really know what to expect,” said Clarke. “I just wanted to play as well as I could, make some birdies and try and get into red figures which I did. Now I’m on the fringes of contention which is good.
“Over the weekend I’m just going to try and keep on doing what I’m doing. I put in a lot of practice on the putting green the other day and that has paid off because today was one of my best putting rounds of the season.”
Goosen, a couple of matches in front of Clarke, did not have the explosive start of his European Tour colleague but an eagle three at the ninth saw the 2001 Volvo Order of Merit winner to the turn in two under par 34.
The 33 year old South African’s steady progress continued on the back nine, his only deviation from par coming at the 389 yard 11th where he made birdie three to move in sight of his second Major Championship title.
The cut fell at two over par 144 with 83 players reaching the required score to play over the weekend. But the incredibly tight nature of the championship was illustrated perfectly by the fact that 49 players are within six shots or better from the lead.