- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

SANDWICH, England — Davis Love III is halfway to doubling his major cache.

While most of the field around him faltered and fumed, the 1997 PGA champion plodded patiently around Sandwich in 72 strokes yesterday, remaining in red numbers at 1 under and taking a two-shot lead into the weekend of the 132nd British Open.

“All in all, I guess it’s a good day,” said the 39-year-old veteran, who reached 4 under through 11 second-round holes before sliding back to the field over Sandwich’s relentless closing stretch. “Too many 5s on the card on the back nine, but it just got tougher and tougher. The wind never let up. The greens got firmer and faster as we went along. And those were some of the hardest pin placements I’ve ever seen.”

The only noise louder than the whistling of the wind and the occasional roar from the massive British gallery yesterday was the universal wailing of the players about a near-satanic set of hole locations. No less than 13 pins were perched either on the crests of ridges or actually set into the side of nasty slopes on the 7,106-yard, par-71 links. Whether those pins were afterward described as merely extremely difficult or downright dodgy depended only upon a player’s second-round score.

“I don’t know if anyone else talked about the first hole being on a knob, but that was an awfully tough one to start out on,” said world No.1 Tiger Woods after a second-round 72 dropped him into joint 11th position at 3 over. “It kind of woke me up. We said, ‘Is this what it’s going to be like all day? Probably.’ And we were all right.”

The firm conditions, lumpy, canted fairways and dubious pins conspired to unhinge most of Thursday’s heroes. First-round leader Hennie Otto slumped to a 76. After his brilliant one-round renaissance, 48-year-old Greg Norman acted his age during a hope-erasing 79. A similar tumble befell 53-year-old Open master Tom Watson, who followed his opening 71 with a goodbye 77.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more bizarre leader board in the annals of major championship history. Consider the fact that Love is the only player among the 10 at 2 over or better with a major championship to his credit. Not that the group is completely populated by strangers.

Danish stalwart Thomas Bjorn shares second with unknown S.K. Ho at 1 over. And Spain’s Sergio Garcia and scorching veteran Kenny Perry are among the cluster three behind Love.

But when the undecorated likes of Ho, Hennie, Alastair Forsyth (2 over), Ben Curtis (2 over) and Marco Ruiz (2 over) crash your major party, one has to wonder if quirky St. George’s is identifying the best players, or simply the luckiest.

Even Love, whose pedigree is unchallenged, stole a pair of strokes at Sandwich yesterday when his wayward drive at the 14th struck an out-of-bounds stake and ricocheted back into play.

“We’re all going to get crazy bounces in this championship,” said Love, who has six straight Open finishes of 21st or better. “I think that was probably three good bounces used up in one hole.”

Love certainly had more than his share on a day when he hit only four fairways. But he also led the field in focus on a day when frayed nerves were the standard.

Even Woods, the game’s unquestioned king when it comes to concentration, suffered a costly mental lapse just when it seemed he might take control of the championship. After fighting his way back to even par through 11 holes, Woods 4-putted at the 12th, yanking two clean-up efforts from inside of three feet.

“I had two pulled putts back-to-back,” said Woods, predictably down-playing the double-bogey disaster. “I thought I played good enough to score a little lower than I did, but, hey, I’m right there in the hunt.”

Unlike Woods and most of the field, which was cut to 75 players at 8-over or better for the weekend, Love milked every stroke out of his play, saving bogey from eight feet or more three times.

“If you hit a shot and it bounces funny, or you can’t get close to a pin and you have to take a par where you think you should have made a birdie, and you start thinking about those things, you can go crazy,” Love said. “That’s the task. That’s why this tournament is going to be so hard to win. It’s not going to be just shot-makers or putting contest, it’s going to be a big mental test. … I think this is going to test the complete package, probably more than any tournament we’ve seen in quite a while.”

In some ways, Love would seem an odd choice at this British Open. He’s a high-ball hitter, not a noted knock-down specialist. And despite his 17 PGA Tour victories, he’s always had a reputation as having more country club than killer instinct in his soul. That said, his two victories this season have exemplified a newfound toughness. His foul-weather 64 in the final round of the Players Championship is unquestionably the round of the year thus far. And his chip-in and playoff victory at the Heritage were equally gutsy.

There’s certainly few players who covet a return to the major victory circle more, particularly if that trip involves a claret jug.

“If I had to pick only one major, it would be hard,” Love said. “But as I have said many times in here, I’ve gone and listened to [former chairman of the Royal & Ancient] Sir Michael Bonallack hand over the trophy to several players and call them the champion golfer of the year, and I don’t think there’s any line in sports like that. … It would mean a lot for me to be standing up there.”

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