Royal Birkdale's bunch topped by 3 golfers at 2-under 35 others loom at 2-over or better


SOUTHPORT, England -- The wind off the Irish Sea has not been excessively punishing, the rough is thin and the greens have a manageable speed. But Royal Birkdale asserted its subtle strength anyway yesterday in the second round of the British Open.

Although the course allowed almost everyone in the field a survivable trip between its sand-dune-bordered green corridors, no player has been able to dominate the 6,940-yard links over the first 36 holes.

As a result, three unlikely leaders -- Mike Harwood of AustraliaAndrew Oldcorn of England and Gary Hallberg of the United States -- are at 2-under-par 138, while a record 110 players are within 10 shots of the leaders in what is becoming the most crowded British Open in history.

There are 35 other players at 2- over or better, including first-round leader Seve Ballesteros, who battled early-morning gusts and rain to grind out a 73 for a total of 139; Jose-Maria Olazabal, who posted a 67 for 141; Greg Norman, who had a self-described "solid" 68; and Masters champion Ian Woosnam, who shot 72 and was among a group of 10 at 142.

Only 43 players of the starting field of 156 missed the 36-hole cuof 148. The previous low number for players missing the cut at the Open was 66, in 1982.

"Right now, it's like a dead heat," said five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, who is at 141 despite a double bogey on the 18th that gave a 72 a sour ending. "The conditions are for the field to be bunched, and, boy, do we have a bunched field."

Watson said Birkdale is not a particularly long course, and because the relatively thin rough off the fairway has not been particularly punishing, most of the field has been able to hit a high number of greens in regulation.

But it is Birkdale's greens, which appear uncomplicatedly contoured to the spectator's eye, that are proving to be nearly unsolvable for the best players in the world.

They are full of small, difficult-to-read breaks, made more insidious this week by a spongy consistency brought on by recent heavy rains. As a result, on greens that are relatively flat, there appears to be no such thing as a straight putt.

Very few players are making many long putts, a great many are missing a lot of short ones. The most notable is defending champion Nick Faldo, who missed several putts under 5 feet on his way to a 75 that put him at 143.

"I think the greens are an equalizing factor," said Watson, who is going for his record sixth British Open championship after winning his fifth at Birkdale in 1983. "You just never know if the ball is in until it's in. I'm just playing a lot of straight putts. If it breaks, it breaks."

"You don't want to charge anything because your not sure you can make those 3- and 4-footers. It's a challenge, and it's going to make for an interesting tournament."

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