South African John Bland, runner up in his two previous appearances in the Senior British Open, presented by MasterCard, made a giant step towards making it third time lucky by opening up a two shot lead at the halfway stage The Royal County Down.
Bland, who finished three shots adrift of Christy O’Connor Jnr last year at Royal Portrush and lost a play-off to Gary Player two year earlier, charged up the leaderboard with five birdies in his last 11 holes for a 67, the best of the day, to move to seven under par.
But only two shots adrift after three birdies in the last three holes is O’Connor Jnr, bidding to become the first player since Brian Barnes in 1996 to successfully defend the title. The Irishman playing with Bland fired a three under 68 despite a double bogey on the eighth.
“I didn’t want John to get too far away,” said O’Connor Jnr. “He is playing beautifully and more imprtantly putting beautifully. I’ve got to get off to a fast start to close the gap on him tomorrow.”
Late in the afternoon the torrential rain which caused play to be suspended for more than two hours gave way for perfect playing conditions and Bland took full advantage. He now has his sights on winning the title for the first time.
“I’ve got to watch Christy,” he said. “He knows the course well and is only two behind. But today was perfect for scoring. We were lucky.”
Australian Ian Stanley is a further shot adrift with Hubert Green, Noel Ratcliffe and local favourite Kenny Stevenson a further two shots off the pace.
Stanley made the most of his early start time to post a three under par 68 to lead for most of the day on four under. While most of the field battled against rain delays and heavy downpours, Stanley was safely back in the warmth of the clubhouse after picking up six birdies in his round. The 51-year-old, who claimed his maiden Seniors Tour title last month with victory in Germany, moved to the top of the leaderboard despite three putts on the final green during a torrential rain storm. Indeed just as Stanley tapped in his final putt play was suspended for two hours as the course succumbed to the deluge.
“Germany gave me a bit more confidence,” he said. “And this course is beautiful. It’s strange to come over and play the traditional links courses. There is so much history in them. You’ve got to be patient on the course. You get a bad bounce and you have to think maybe you’ll get a good bounce on the next hole. It does happen.
“I wanted to stop on the 18th when the rain came down but carried on and three putted which was disappointing. But it was a good round out there today. I started with two bogeys and could have thrown the towel in then but relaxed and the birdies started to roll.”
Overnight leader Ratcliffe had pulled clear of the field before the rain delay but was unable to find his caddie when called back to play. “He ducked off somewhere,” said an unhappy Australian. “I couldn’t find him anywhere.”
As a result Ratcliffe found himself rushing around in search of his caddie and clubs rather than warming up and when re-united he was understandably not in the right frame of mind. Two bogeys and a double bogey immediately after the resumption of play saw him round in 73, two over, and back in the chasing pack.
Northern Ireland’s Kenny Stevenson, who won the Irish Close Amateur Championship at Royal County Down in 1972, put his local knowledge to good use with a second successive 70 to move to two under par and just two shots off the pace.
With dusk falling David Creamer opted not to complete the last hole due to failing light after his tee shot and will therefore return at 7.30am in an attempt to eagle the par five final hole to make the cut. All other players completed the rain-delayed second round.