He started the week as hot favourite and World Number One Tiger Woods lived up to that billing when a second round 67 for an 11 under par total of 133 gave him a four shot lead at the halfway stage of The Open Championship at St Andrews. However, a raft of European Tour Members, led by Scotland’s favourite son Colin Montgomerie, gathered in the chasing pack, all determined to get their hands on the Claret Jug come Sunday night.
Despite having the timing distraction of playing as a two-ball with Paul Lawrie – after the third member of the group David Toms disqualified himself for hitting a moving ball on the 17th green of their first round – Montgomerie was in imperious form.
The 42 year old had seven birdies and an eagle three on his card in a superb second round 66 which left him on seven under par 137 and only four shots behind Woods whom he will partner in the final group in Saturday’s third round, a truly mouthwatering prospect for the huge and appreciative Scottish galleries.
Bogeys at the 12th and 13th seemed to have halted Montgomerie’s second round momentum but he rallied superbly, birdieing the 14th and 15th holes before finishing with a flourish on the 18th, holing from 12 feet for a closing birdie three after his drive had ended up pin high to the left of the green.
Montgomerie praised the vast crowds who had stayed behind after Jack Nicklaus's emotional farewell to cheer him home. "It was great that the crowd stayed for another one and a half hours. I pay a lot of respect to them for helping me home.
"I look forward to tomorrow - the crowd, the whole atmosphere. I'll enjoy watching him (Tiger) and the fact that the crowd are very much behind me here.
"If Tiger does stumble at all that gives us a chance. I'm just the leader of a very strong pack and one of us is going to shoot low. If I putt as well as I did today I have a chance. I'm pretty relaxed now.
"Three years ago I led at Lytham, but missed from five feet on the last hole of my second round and felt deep down I wasn't going to win. Today I holed a 12-footer and it's a big, big difference."
Montgomerie was not the only European Tour Member to figure prominently however. One shot behind in the group on six under par 138 were Trevor Immelman, Peter Lonard, José Maria Olazábal and Vijay Singh, while Sergio Garcia and Simon Khan ended their opening two rounds on five under par 139.
But the man they all have to catch once again is Woods, and the signs are ominous. The 29 year old American is going for his tenth Major Championship title and in each of his previous nine victories, he has led going into the last round. If the World Number One repeats the form he has shown over the first two rounds, it is difficult to see that eventuality in place come tee-time on Sunday afternoon again.
Woods had five birdies in his second round 67, at the third, fifth, ninth, tenth and 14th. But perhaps the most telling statistic from that list is that on all but the third hole, he had eagle putts, his towering length from the tee helping him find the green at the par four fifth, ninth and tenth holes with his drive, and in two on the par five 14th.
“Making the birdies is good but I also didn’t drop any shots out there today which was just as pleasing,” he said. “Patience was my key quality today. I hit a couple of bad shots but I recovered and managed to hole some decent putts for par too which helped keep my momentum going.”
Behind Woods and Montgomerie, Immelman, Lonard and Olazábal all carded 70s for 138 while Singh joined the group following his second successive 69.
Of the quartet, the most spectacular finish was posted by Olazábal who drove his ball into the Valley of Sin at the front of the 18th green before rolling in an audacious curling putt for an eagle two to spark a joyous celebration which featured a high-five with playing partner Woods and a sweeping bow more associated with the stage in London’s west end.
“It was just the excitement of eagling the last at St Andrews,” said the Spaniard. “If you don’t enjoy a moment like that, you will never enjoy anything else in your life again.
“It had been a tough day on the greens before that – I did have chances but I just couldn’t seem to take any. It seemed like one of those days when nothing was going my way but what happened at the 18th changed all that – it cheered me up a lot.”
Immelman further emphasised his credentials as one of the most exciting young talents in the game with a tidy effort. A birdie three at the ninth saw him out in level par 36 before he made his move on the inward half of the Old Course, birdies at the 12th, 14th and 18th making amends for his solitary dropped shot of the inward half, which came at the 13th.
“I'm delighted with the way I played and to hole that putt at the last for birdie was a great feeling," he said. "Patience is very important out there and you have to make sure you keep your thoughts together and try not to get too far ahead of yourself. I think I have managed to do that pretty well."
Singh carded his second consecutive 69 but whereas in Thursday’s opening round he had two bogeys, in the second round he was consistency personified, no dropped shots at all, his only departures for par coming with birdies at the first, ninth and 14th.
The 42 year old Fijian had a chance to take the lead outright but, with Woods looking on from the adjacent first tee, he let his birdie chance from ten feet on the 18th green slip by the left edge of the hole.
"It was disappointing not to birdie the last but I'm happy with my position in the tournament," he said. "I'm playing well, I'm striking the ball well and I'm putting well, the ball is just not dropping. But I am very much in the tournament and looking forward to the weekend."
One shot behind was Spain’s Sergio Garcia who birdied the final hole for a second round 69 and a five under par total of 139. Indeed Garcia had a chance for eagle two at the last after driving the green but saw his putt from 18 feet slip narrowly past the left edge of the hole.
“Hopefully if I can be about four or five shots behind going into the weekend then I will have a good chance because I am playing well,” he said. “I felt like 70-69 was the highest scores I could have shot. I was putting well but the ball was just not dropping – hopefully I can put that right on Saturday and Sunday.”
Other European Tour Members to figure prominently were Richard Green, Thomas Levet and the 2004 Ryder Cup Captain Bernhard Langer on four under par 140, while 11 Members finished on three under par 141.
Amongst that number were former Open Champions Ernie Els and Sandy Lyle alongside the last two US Open Champions Michael Campbell and Retief Goosen, who joined Luke Donald, Simon Dyson, Thongchai Jaidee, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Graeme McDowell, Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson.
At the end of play, the cut fell at one over par 145, meaning 80 players will complete the final two rounds on Saturday and Sunday.