- Associated Press - Saturday, July 16, 2011

SANDWICH, England — Rickie Fowler led an American charge up the leaderboard on a day when the weather roared at Royal St. George’s.

Pounding rains and winds gusting over 30 mph prompted players to don bulky, oven-style mitts between shots, huddle under umbrellas and try to find a way to get around the course without giving up too many shots to par Saturday.

“It was playing stupidly difficult,” said Edoardo Molinari, who shot 76. “Some holes were just a joke.”

But the storms eased up in time for those with late tee times to start putting up respectable numbers. The 22-year-old Fowler sure seized the opportunity, leaving playing partner Rory McIlroy behind as he surged into contention.

Fowler shot a 2-under 68 that sent him to the clubhouse only two strokes behind leader Darren Clarke. Americans Dustin Johnson and Lucas Glover were among those only one shot off the pace.

The U.S. hasn’t won a major championship since Phil Mickelson captured the Masters in 2010, a drought of five in a row that is the country’s longest in the modern Grand Slam era.

Fowler had a stretch of three birdies in four holes coming down the stretch, while McIlroy faded from contention. The U.S. Open champion knocked it out of bounds at the par-5 14th, wound up making double-bogey and finished with a 74.

He cocked his head in disappointment as he walked up to the 18th green, his deficit having doubled from four to eight strokes.

Glover opened with a bogey but followed with five straight pars, the sort of solid play that carried him to the U.S. Open title in 2009. He made only three bogeys over the first two rounds to join Clarke at the top of the leaderboard at the midway point, both at 4-under 136.

Johnson got off to a miserable start at Royal St. George’s, but a hole-in-one Thursday at the 16th turned things around. He’s shown he can contend in majors, leading last year at both the U.S. Open (where he played miserably on the final day) and the PGA Championship (a much-debated penalty cost him a spot in a playoff).

Now, he’s got to show he can finish.

First-round leader Thomas Bjorn was right in the mix, as well, still in position to make up for blowing the Open the last time it came to Royal St. George’s in 2003.

The Dane had a two-stroke lead with three holes to play, only to throw it away when he needed three swings to free himself from a pot bunker at No. 16.

Bjorn was just one stroke back, tied with Glover and Johnson at 3 under.

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