KJ and Norman unlikely Open contenders

KJ Choi is two solid rounds away from becoming the first Asian to win a Major tournament after knocking Greg Norman off the top of an unlikely Open Championship leaderboard on Friday.

The South Korean birdied his last two holes to claim the lead with a three-under-par 67 that left him at one under for the tournament, one shot ahead of the 53-year-old Australian, who putted sublimely to register a second round of 70.

”It feels a bit like stepping back in time,” admitted Norman, while stressing that he was keeping his expectations for the rest of the tournament ”realistically low”.

Choi described his round as ”the best I’ve played at the British Open”.

”Everything went the way I wanted it to. The fans support was wonderful and I got great motivation from that.”

Colombia’s Camilo Villegas, who surged up the leaderboard after an extraordinary 65, was two shots off the lead at one-over par.

Among the group one shot further back was David Duval, whose presence near the top of the leaderboard in the latter stages of his second round was arguably even more surprising than Norman’s renaissance.

The 2001 champion has made just one cut in 12 attempts this year as he attempts to rebuild a career that went into freefall after his victory at Lytham. Even Norman’s world ranking of 646 looks elevated when set against Duval’s lowly rank of 1 087.

Also at two over was defending champion Padraig Harrington, whose participation in the tournament had been in doubt until minutes before he teed off on Thursday because of an injured wrist.

That saga was reduced to a distant memory as the Dubliner finished with an eagle and a birdie on his last two holes to card a 68.

”I’m well in there with 36 holes to go and you just need to be there with nine to play,” said the delighted Irishman. ”It’s unlikely anybody is going to run away with it.”

No one, however, could fully wrest the limelight away from Norman.

The 1986 and 1993 champion, who married tennis legend Chris Evert last month, spends more time on the tennis court than on the golf course these days.

He fits in tournaments when business commitments and injuries allow and he is making his first appearance at the Open since 2005.

But he still knows his way around a links course and the greens, as he proved by sinking a 50-foot putt for birdie on the first green to get to one under par.

Another monster putt enabled him to birdie the short seventh and a three at the eighth cancelled out the damage done by a double bogey at the sixth.

Seven solid pars followed but Norman had to scramble magnificently to keep his round together over the last three holes.

A superb recovery from a greenside bunker, played with his feet outside the trap, salvaged par at the 16th and he needed to hole another two long putts to turn what could have been a 6-5 finish into 5-4.

Playing a couple of groups ahead of Norman, Villegas was making light of the blustery conditions with eight birdies, five of them on the last five holes.

After hitting the pin with his second shot at the 18th, he holed a 20-footer to complete a 2-4-3-4-3 finish and a remarkable score for someone who started the day with bogey fives on his first two holes.

Rocco Mediate, Graeme McDowell and Robert Allenby, the overnight leaders and the only players to break par in their opening rounds, all dropped back with 73s, but remain in the title hunt.

Pre-tournament favourite Sergio Garcia is five shots off the pace after a 73 and his prospects of challenging were not encouraged by a couple of missed tiddlers on the first and 18th greens.

Phil Mickelson bounced back from his opening 79 with a 68 to beat the cut by two strokes.

Ernie Els was made to sweat after missing a four-foot par putt on the 18th but finally squeezed into the final two rounds right on the cut mark after following Thursday’s 80 with a 69.

But Mark O’Meara (77), the last man to win a British Open at Royal Birkdale, was packing his bags, as were former champions Tom Watson (76), Paul Lawrie (73) and John Daly, whose second round 89 was the worst round of the week.

Also facing an early flight home were 2007 US Open champion Angel Cabrera and two-time Major winner Vijay Singh. — AFP



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