Shortly before 6pm there was a changing of the guard at St Andrews, with Sir Nick Faldo waving his farewells to the Old Course galleries from the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th fairway while the three-ball of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama were all lining up birdie putts on the 1st green.
The trio had been warned as a huge roar from the Road Hole stand caught everybody’s attention while they were leaving the tee to start their round and it transpired that Faldo, the 1990 champion at St Andrews, had made a birdie at the most difficult hole on the course. The cheers and applause followed him and his playing partners, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler, all the way to the 18th tee as Spieth and his partners pondered their second shots to the green.
Whether there is a future Open champion among the three men in Game 43 is a moot point but the likelihood is there is more than one and after winning the first two majors of this season Spieth, the world No2 who began Friday at five under, was the bookmakers’ favourite for this one before the tournament started, and it is not inconceivable that Johnson, the overnight leader from Thursday on seven under, will make his mark either while Matsuyama started with a burst that suggested he could win this one.
Johnson had last month’s US Open in the palm of his hand, only to miss out on a Monday play-off with Spieth after three-putting from around 12 feet when one would have won it, and he also had his chances in the 2011 Open when chasing Darren Clarke, only for his ball to go out of bounds at the 14th to sink that challenge.
It was Johnson who was quicker to settle on Friday, making birdie at the 4th and following up with another at the par-five 5th where he hit a booming drive which went right of the fairway and pulled up about five yards short of a huge expanse of gorse. From there he found the back left of the green and sent his 40-foot eagle putt at tap-in distance to pick up another shot.
Spieth had missed long birdie putts at the first three holes and a shorter one at the 4th but he dropped his first at the par-five 5th where he found a pot bunker from the tee and displayed his annoyance by banging his driver into the ground in frustration.
The dropped shot seemed to get an increasingly tetchy Spieth – who had three times walked away from shots by then, one at the edge of the 4th green when his caddie asked the distant gallery for quiet – fired up for a time and back-to-back birdies got him under par for the day.
Another bogey at the par-three 8th dragged him back to five under but a birdie at the 9th meant he completed the front nine in a one-under 35.
On the way out Spieth was caught by Matsuyama as the Japanese compiled an astonishing opening sequence after starting at level par and reeling off four birdie threes in a row from the 1st before picking up two more by the turn to reach six under, putting himself right into the reckoning for the weekend.
Spieth, who stepped away from another long putt at the par-three 11th and tossed his putter into the bag when he missed a six-footer for par, maintains he feels no pressure other than the usual demand to win at the weekend and, though he and Johnson chatted cordially as they walked along a couple of the fairways and during a delay as they had an extended wait on the 5th tee, it was the man from South Carolina who cut the more relaxed figure as he worked on improving his own score.
He got to 11 under with a birdie at the 10th but, with the wind gusting more strongly as the light started to fade, he missed a similar putt to Spieth’s at the 11th to slip back again. Matsuyama also made birdie at the 10th, though he dropped his first shots at the 11th and 12th before getting one back at the 14th to finish on six under. Spieth and Johnson marked their balls at the front of that green and will complete the hole first thing in the morning when play will start at seven o’clock with a view to getting the third round started at 11am.
“We needed to play [late],” said Johnson. “The more we get done, the easier it is for the return. I feel great. I’m in a good spot. It definitely got very tricky this afternoon – even the front side the wind was howling and it was blowing straight left to right. It played very tough all day. Yeah, long day. I’ll go and get a good night’s rest and get back out here tomorrow.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010