Royal Birkdale blows

KEN FIDLIN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

SOUTHPORT, England -- Nowhere in golf does par become so irrelevant as at a British Open.

Oh, the winner will be ascribed a number and it will be compared to par, but nobody who played in the nightmarish conditions --relentless 50 km/h winds that gusted to 65 -- presented at Royal Birkdale yesterday will attach any importance to it.

It all comes down to who takes the fewest shots to get around and, right now, that improbable leader is 53-year-old Greg Norman, who has used two fewer strokes to negotiate 54 holes than have K.J. Choi and defending champion Padraig Harrington. Unheralded Englishman Simon Wakefield is another shot back, just ahead of a four-man group that includes former Open champ Ben Curtis and rising American star Anthony Kim.

Norman, Choi and Harrington all went backwards yesterday, but less so than most of their opponents. Norman shot 72 to go with back-to-back 70s in his first two rounds. Harrington also shot 72 while Choi, the second-round leader, shot 75.

This, like so many Opens in the past, has become a war of attrition. Norman and all the others are not battling par. Theirs is a fight for survival. They are not merely trying to get through the day, they are trying to get through the next minute, the next shot in some of the most difficult conditions in history.

Let down your guard for even a heartbeat and you end up like Jim Furyk. The steady American, one of the most reliable players in golf, arrived at the 10th tee yesterday, coming off back-to-back birdies at eight and nine. He was tied for the lead with Norman, Choi and Harrington.

Five holes later, he was an afterthought, a casualty of that war of attrition. In those five holes, Furyk lost six shots and almost all hope of winning the Claret Jug today.

"In links golf," Furyk said, "you can get a good hop or a bad hop, you can get in a bunker in a good position or a bad position, you can get in the rough in a thin patch or a heavy patch.

BLEEDING

"This course, more than most courses, you get what you deserve. I'm disappointed with my back nine today. I shot seven-over and made a lot of poor decisions. I knew if I could stop the bleeding then I'd be all right but I wasn't able to do it."

And what of Camilo Villegas? The dashing young Colombian began the day with dreams of contending down the stretch, just two shots off the lead. By day's end, he was just another bit of road kill, shooting a 79.

Weather is as much a part of the British Open experience as links golf. The golf courses are constructed with wind and rain factored in. Without the elements a lot of links courses -- perhaps not Birkdale , but a lot of others -- would be total pushovers for today's longball-hitting, precision professionals.

And yesterday was a weather day for the ages. The sun shone, the sky was brilliant blue. No rain on this day. Just a relentless, howling wind that haunted every corner of the golf course.

While the early players probably didn't appreciate they were on the lucky side of the draw, buffeted about in the wind as they were, a few of them made massive moves, just by holding together rounds of even par.

Davis Love III made it to the weekend on the cutline at nine over, tied for 69th and moved up 54 places into 15th place with his round of 70 yesterday. Likewise, Henrik Stenson moved up to ninth place from 52nd and Ben Curtis jumped all the way from T38 to T5 when all was said and done.

Meanwhile, the leaders, on the course through the worst of the winds, backed up steadily all day long on a day when the course stroke average was 75.8.

The good news is that today's final round is expected to be played in far less severe conditions, with no rain forecast and calmer skies. Then again, these are the British Isles.

"I have no idea what the forecast is," Harrington said. "Going by the weather service over here, they don't either."


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