Carl Mason continued his love affair with the tournament while Mark McNulty continued his love affair with his newly adopted Ireland, as both players, along with Americans Pete Oakley and Don Pooley, shared the lead at the halfway stage of The Senior British Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
The quartet all finished on three under par 141 after a demanding day on the famous Northern Ireland links which truly bared its teeth through the rain and wind which peppered the entire day, one shot ahead of a trio of players on two under par 142, England’s Mark James, America’s Tom Kite and Bill Longmuir of Scotland.
Mason, who lost in a play-off to five time Open Golf Champion Tom Watson in the tournament 12 months ago at the Westin Turnberry Resort, revealed he was more delighted to be swinging smoothly and pain-free after earlier season back problems than he was with his second round 71.
“Leading up to this week I was a little wary of the back and I wasn’t quite swinging it the way I should have been,” he said. “I was protecting it a little bit but thankfully my good friend Derrick Cooper got me back on track this week with some swing tips and at long last I feel like I’m swinging the club properly.”
Out in 35, the Englishman got to two under for the day with a five foot putt for birdie on the 11th before giving the two shots back to the course with bogeys at the 12th and 14th, but a three iron to 18 feet and a delightful birdie putt at the 16th saw him finish in red figures for the day.
McNulty, formerly of Zimbabwe but having recently taken Irish citizenship from his mother’s side of the family, continued to thrill his new-found home supporters with a neat and tidy display, appropriate for one of the most dapper dressers on Tour.
The 50 year old, who won on his debut on the US Champions Tour in February, looked on his way to the outright lead when he birdied five of the first 15 holes in a superb and flawless display in the demanding conditions.
But McNulty let his concentration slip a little on the final stretch, dropping a shot at the 16th when he missed the green with his approach, and another on the 18th where he misclubbed, to settle for a 69 and his place amongst the leading group.
“I think if you take the whole picture, if somebody had said to me playing the first hole with the way that the showers were coming in that I was going to shoot 69 then obviously I would be delighted,” he said.
“But all us golfers are in the same league, we all bitch and moan about things. I was obviously disappointed to finish with three fives but that is golf.”
Recognised for his ability to hit the ball low into the wind, it was no surprise to the American viewers of the third Senior Major Championship of the year that Don Pooley was in the group of leaders, carding a second round 72.
“I love links golf,” he said. “You get a variety of shots out there, you can play a variety of shots and you need to use your imagination and have a good feel for different shots. And it’s fun golf. I like to play it that way.”
Completing the leading quartet was Pooley’s American colleague but a European Seniors Tour Member Pete Oakley, whose brother David has won four times on the European Seniors Tour and would have been delighted with his younger brother’s excellent 68 which was the best round of the day.
It was certainly a rollercoaster effort from the 55 year old who had seven birdies and three bogeys in total in his 18 holes. “I played well and did not get too nervous,” he said. “I have never been in this position before and it was gratifying to come through and play well instead of folding up my tent and going home.”
Of the illustrious trio tied in fifth place on two under par 142, the best performance was posted by Mark James. As Tom Kite and Bill Longmuir matched their opening rounds of 71, the Englishman, still enjoying the form which saw him win his first Major Championship two weeks ago in the Ford Senior Players Championship, bettered his opening 72 by two shots, a superb effort in the worst of the morning weather.
Ironically the former European Ryder Cup Captain started with a bogey five when he three putted the first green but, apart from a bogey at the ninth where he got tangled in the punitive Portrush rough, James was flawless.
The Englishman carded birdies at the second and third, the latter from all of 40 feet, while his flawless inward half featured birdies at the tenth and 13th, courtesy of excellent approach shots to eight and six feet respectively.
“It was a heck of lot stronger the wind today, it was a big difference,” said James. “It is difficult to remember exactly what I hit on holes yesterday but I would say that when the wind was at its hardest, most holes were about a club and a half longer.
James, whose best finish in the Open Golf Championship was fourth at both Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1979 and Turnberry in 1994, admitted that, although the contrast was great to the current golf he was playing on the US Champions Tour, he was enjoying the challenge Royal Portrush presented.
“It does make quite a change because you have to move the ball both ways quite often and hit it low and try to stop it,” he said. “It is a challenge and you’re always grinding a bit if it is windy.”
Kite, whose birdies at the eighth, 12th and 17th made up for his early dropped shots at the third and fifth, concurred with the Englishman whom he partnered for the first two rounds.
“I guess it might be a little stretch to call it fun but I love it,” said the winner of the 1992 US Open Championship. “I think when the conditions are more difficult it helps the better players, I think it improves their chances of winning the tournament.
“We’re all big enough with all of our clothes and rainsuits on and umbrellas to try to battle the elements but it is definitely a challenge. But the higher the winds, within reason, it is something that I look forward to.”
Completing the triumvirate, Longmuir followed in the footsteps of the American with three birdies and two dropped shots and admitted he also liked the challenge that the majestic Royal Portrush links had posed.
"I love links golf,” said Scot. “I know it is tough for everybody but I do like the wind. I don’t like the rain so much but it made it very interesting today with some of the shots you had to hit and some of the clubs you had to hit to travel big yardages and small yardages, it was just incredible.”
At the end of the day, the cut fell at nine over par 153 with 70 players exactly qualifying for the weekend. One of those was defending champion Tom Watson, still feeling his shoulder injury, but who made it through with round of 75-74 for a five over par total of 149.