Dustin Johnson is not used to being the sideshow but there were times when even the world’s number one golfer must have known his place at Royal Birkdale on Friday.
While Rory McIlroy fed off the home support with two birdies in his first three holes and an outward-nine 31, his American playing partner grappled with the elements at the British Open as swirling crosswinds and drying greens tested his game to the limit.
A slightly despondent Johnson finished on 72, two over for the day and three over for the tournament, which will be good enough to make the cut but probably insufficient to mount a genuine tournament challenge.
A bogey at the last, after finding one of Birkdale’s 123 bunkers, summed up his difficult day.
“I guess I’m just not playing that good. I hit a pretty good drive on the last hole, I just didn’t think I was going to reach that bunker,” he said. “You hit it in a bunker, and you’re going to have a tough time getting a par.”
That represented a disappointing end to an otherwise solid back nine, with birdies on 12 and 15 and only one other bogey on 13.
While his Irish playing partner was brought up on links golf, Johnson has found the conditions a world away from the South Carolina courses on which he honed his technique. But he chose not to offer the weather as an excuse.
“I wish I could blame it on the wind. Just struggling a bit with the irons, not hitting the shots I wanted to. I hit a few good shots out there. But today was really tough,” he said. “Yesterday I just didn’t play very well. But today was very difficult. I felt like I drove it all right.”
Generally he showed control, although one wild shot at the ninth struck a journalist for the Irish Times on the face. Unlike Thursday, when the outward nine proved harder, the inward holes were more testing on Friday when crosswinds disrupted everyone’s line.
“You get a couple of holes — not too many holes in the wind, maybe two holes downwind, maybe a couple of tee shots, 1 and 10 and 4 is about the only holes you get downwind, the rest of them are crosswind. It seems like today we played a lot of in and across,” he said.
Although Johnson maintained he can still post “a good score” on Saturday to get himself “back in the tournament”, he knows his chances of a first British Open title to add to last year’s US Open triumph may have gone.
For McIlroy it could be a different story. “Yeah, he’s playing pretty good. He’s 1-under par. That’s pretty good through two rounds. Obviously got off to a rough start yesterday, but battled back. And got off to a really good start today,” Johnson said.