Des Smyth leads The Senior Open Championship, presented by Aberdeen Asset Management, by one shot at the halfway stage as he looks to follow in the still-fresh footsteps of fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington.
Inspired by Harrington’s thrilling play-off victory in The Open Championship at Carnoustie five days ago, Smyth raised his own game at Muirfield on Friday when he defied strong winds with a second consecutive round of one under par 70.
Smyth closed with four birdies in a row to sign for one of only two scores under par, as 20 mph gusts blew a number of leading contenders down the leaderboard.
The other man round in red figures was Australian Stewart Ginn, who offset four bogeys with an eagle and three birdies for a 70 and a share of second place.
Smyth leads the way on two under par 140 but has a hugely talented and international pack on his tail, including the man who ended his dream of becoming a Senior Major champion two years ago.
Back then Royal Aberdeen was hosting The Senior Open Championship and Smyth lost to Tom Watson in a play-off. Fast forward 24 months and Waston is breathing right down Smyth’s neck again after the five-time Open Champion tagged a level par 71 to his opening 70 to finish on 141.
Alongside Ginn and Watson – also a winner of The Senior Open in 2003 – are Gordon J Brand of England and Eduardo Romero of Argentina. Like Smyth, Romero is looking to go one better after losing a play-off to Loren Roberts at The Westin Turnberry Resort last year.
England’s Nick Faldo, whose opening 68 gave him a share of the first round lead, endured a frustrating day with the putter and lies two shots off the pace following a second round of 74.
American Morris Hatalsky, Australian Graham Marsh and Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota are keeping Europe’s Ryder Cup Captain company on level par 142.
With the wind, which peaked at 25mph, whipping in off the Firth of Forth the day looked made for someone of Smyth’s links experience and, ultimately, it proved to be the case.
After a third bogey of the day at the 14th, Smyth looked to heading nowhere. But then his fortunes turned dramatically with a closing run of four birdies for an inward half of 33.
“I hit a purple patch down the stretch – that changed the whole day really. Conditions were very difficult,” said Smyth, who capped the run with a sumptuous six iron that landed pin high left off the pin on the 18th.
“I was delighted personally and for the Irish people that Padraig won last week, but I will only think about an Irish double if I am still there when we go down the last nine holes on Sunday. In the meantime I am going to practice and try to play the way I have these past two days.
“Obviously I would love to win but whatever happens I need a good result because of the way I have played all year on the Champions Tour. I only have two top tens and I am worried about keeping my card. I need a big result somewhere along the line and this could be the place to do it.”
While Smyth reflected on Harrington’s Open win, three-times European Seniors Tour winner Brand was asked to cast his mind back 21 years to The 115th Open at Turnberry where he enjoyed his best ever result, finishing second to Greg Norman and two clear of Faldo.
“If I can beat Nick again this week then I know I shall be in with a shout. Let’s see if I can go one better,” said the Englishman after his round of 73.
Sam Torrance, who tacked on a 74 to his opening 69 to be three over for the Championship, revealed the strength of the wind when he said of the 448 yard opening hole: “I ripped a drive down the first, and then three wood, but was still 50 yards short of the green, and I nailed them both.”
The two-time European Seniors Tour Order of Merit was not alone in his battles. Indeed, of the 140 teeing up, only nine players matched par or better.
Watson (71) was one of those after he gave another wonderful links performance. A bogey at the last took some of the gloss off his day’s work, but it was testament to the American’s character that he was more worried by the condition of the spectator he hit on the head coming out of a bunker at the 14th.
“I loved it out there today. It was fun to be challenged by the various wind conditions and various flagstick positions. It was a great day on the golf course, with the exception of beaning the spectator in the head on 14. Thankfully I was told on the 18th that he was okay,” said the eight-time Major Champion.
Defending champion Loren Roberts was in danger of going home early but produced a rallying riposte, coming back in 32 to stay in the Championship on four over par.
“I stood on the tenth tee seven over par, so knew I had to shoot at least level par on the back side, but three under was great,” he admitted. “I haven’t been hitting the ball well the last couple of days, until the back nine today. I kind of put my head down, found a good swing thought and finally hit a lot of good shots.
“It would have dented my pride to miss the cut, but I didn’t really want to think about that. I didn’t think anybody was going to be under par, but obviously Des birdied the last four and had an impressive finish. Six back is not insurmountable, but I’ll need to play good and shoot low tomorrow.”
A total of 77 players made the cut, which fell at nine over par.