Jordan Spieth will head into the weekend of The 146th Open with a two-shot lead as Rory McIlroy made a significant move on a brutal second day at Royal Birkdale.
The bright sunshine of the opening round was a distant memory as the field battled hard to combat fierce winds and torrential rain that caused a brief suspension of play in mid-afternoon, with Spieth and McIlroy among only eight players to break par.
Matt Kuchar (71) is Spieth’s closest challenger while the resurgent Ian Poulter ground out 16 pars in a 70 which earned him a share of third with Brooks Koepka (72), with Scotland’s Richie Ramsay also in contention on two under par.
McIlroy’s two-under 68 in the morning session was the polar opposite to his opening 71 in which he was five over after six holes before a back-nine resurgence inspired by a stern telling off from his caddie revived his chances of a first major win since 2014.
The world No 4 played the first six holes in eight shots fewer than Thursday with birdies at the first, third and sixth, and he made a series of clutch par saves after the turn as winds gusting up to 40mph sent scores soaring.
McIlroy’s run of 24 holes without a bogey ended at the tough 13th, a hole which did not yield a single birdie all day, and two attempts to hack out of thick rough led to a bogey-six at 15, but he bounced back with a solid birdie at the 17th and closed out an excellent day’s work with a par at the last to finish on one under for the tournament.
He will head into the weekend five adrift of Spieth, who birdied the first and then dropped his first shot of The Open at the third, and he erred again at the ninth before a chip-in for par at the 10th shortly before the temporary suspension inspired him to birdie the 11th and 12th.
Spieth blotted his card again at the short 14th, but he atoned with a brilliant eagle at the next before giving another shot back at 16, and two closing pars left him two clear of Ryder Cup team-mate Kuchar, who bogeyed two of the last three holes to slip to four under.
Poulter fed off his huge support and battled manfully to reel off pars at the first 11 holes before he finally got a birdie putt to drop at the 12th, although an errant approach to the 16th cost him his only bogey of the day.
The Englishman shares third with Kopeka, who failed to make a birdie but made only two bogeys in his 72, while Ramsay also had 16 pars on his scorecard with one bogey at 13 followed by a well-crafted birdie at the 17th.
McIlroy’s two-under round was enough to move him 52 places up the leaderboard and into a tie for sixth with English journeyman Richard Bland, who followed his opening 67 with a gallant 72 in the worst of the weather.
The 44-year-old, birdied two of the first four holes to leap into a share of the lead on five under in only his second Open appearance, his first coming at Birkdale 19 years ago, but he bogeyed the sixth and eighth and a double-bogey at the fearsome 13th sent him back to one under.
Bland offset a birdie at 14 with a scrappy six at 15, but he parred safely in to be one of only nine players under par for the tournament after 36 holes as nobody managed to get round without a blue number on the card.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia overcame a shoulder injury which had him fearing he would be unable to complete his second round, but the Spaniard lifted his spirits with a superb eagle-two at the sixth and birdies at 15 and 17 got him back to one over before he dropped his third shot of the day at the last.
Garcia is alongside Rickie Fowler and defending champion Henrik Stenson, who stumbled to a 73 after revealing he had lost “valuable personal items” in a burglary at his rented home on Thursday evening.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson remained out of sorts with his irons as he carded a 72 to close on three over, while the English quartet of Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose and Danny Willett all made the halfway cut with nothing to spare on five over par.