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Willett stakes Open claim

Published 17/07/2015

Heavy rain forced the suspension of play at St Andrews
Heavy rain forced the suspension of play at St Andrews

England's Danny Willett claimed the clubhouse lead in a weather-affected 144th Open Championship on Friday, a day which ended at 9:55pm with five-time champion Tom Watson bidding an emotional farewell.

As play stuttered to a halt around the course following a delay of more than three hours due to torrential early rain, Watson and playing partners Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker opted to complete their second rounds in near-darkness.

The trio and their caddies - with Watson's son Michael on his bag - paused on the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th for the traditional photograph before Watson was left alone to take the applause of the spectators who had stayed on to salute the popular 65-year-old.

A closing bogey, one of five in a row for a round of 80, barely mattered and was instead greeted with a loud cheer as officials and players applauded from the clubhouse steps.

In truth it was not the finish Watson deserved with the grandstands largely deserted, but the alternative was a return at 7am on Saturday to complete the round, with those players making the cut to be sent out in groups of three to make up lost time.

Willett had finished more than five hours earlier and is 41 under par for his last 10 rounds on the Old Course, adding a 69 to his opening 66 to reach nine under par, two shots ahead of Scotland's Marc Warren, former Masters champions Zach Johnson and Adam Scott and Robert Streb.

Dustin Johnson was 10 under par with five holes remaining, with 1999 champion Paul Lawrie and Jason Day eight under with six and seven holes left respectively.

Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth, playing alongside Johnson, was five under par after three birdies and three bogeys in 13 completed holes.

Former world number one Tiger Woods was five over par after 11 holes and in need of a brilliant finish to avoid missing consecutive cuts in major championships for the first time in his career, the cut predicted to fall at level par.

At the other end of the leaderboard Willett was entertaining thoughts of becoming the first English winner of the Open since Nick Faldo in 1992, although his mother Elisabet kept Willett's feet planted firmly on the ground.

"I just had a text message off my mum saying well done, you've made the cut," Willett joked in his post-round press conference. "I'm sure there will be a few messages, I can feel my phone buzzing a little bit right now. But it might be a case tonight of turning the phone off and having a little bit of quiet time."

After greenkeepers cleared the waterlogged course so play could restart at 10am, Willett carded birdies on the second, fifth and ninth to reach the turn in 33, before another birdie on the 10th gave him a three-shot lead as Zach Johnson dropped shots on the 11th and 12th.

Three-putt bogeys on the 15th and 17th cut the gap to a single shot, but Willett took advantage of the downwind 18th to drive to the edge of the green and pitched to eight feet for a closing birdie.

"I looked at the leaderboard on 11 and knew we were three in front," added vicar's son Willett, whose best finish in a major is a share of 15th at Muirfield in 2013. "It's a childhood dream and looking up there it's still a little bit surreal, but something I'm going to have to get used to, otherwise no point in being up there.

"It's something you need to embrace, otherwise you're going to have a pretty tough weekend if you don't like being there.

"You can't really put it out of your mind but it's pretty cool. Leading the Open is what you dream about. For Brits especially it's the major you want to win and here at the Home of Golf it's a little bit more special."

Willett, 27, won the English Amateur title in 2007 and defeated Rory McIlroy in the first round of the Amateur Championship the same year, racing five up after six holes before eventually sealing victory on the 17th.

And later that year he and McIlroy were on the same team in the Walker Cup as Great Britain and Ireland lost out at Royal County Down to an American side featuring Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel, Dustin Johnson and Webb Simpson.

Warren matched Willett's 69 to boost Scottish hopes of a first home winner since Lawrie's victory at Carnoustie 16 years ago.

"I'm delighted with that," said Warren, who carded a closing 64 to finish fourth in the Scottish Open at Gullane on Sunday. "It was a long morning.

"I had just started my warm up in the rain and the good news came in it was going to be delayed. When we did tee off it was certainly much drier and it was just the wind we had to battle.

"The weekend of the Open at St Andrews does not get much better. The game is in good shape, I'll give it my best and see what happens."

South Africa's Jaco van Zyl had hit the opening tee shot of the day at 6:32am and had a three-foot putt for birdie before play was suspended.

"They tried to squeegee the green but water was rising quicker than they could get it away," Van Zyl said. "We had the option to putt out but we all stopped, the hole was literally full with water."

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