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Tournament-best 65 puts Villegas into serious contention
After bogeying his first two holes Friday, Camilo Villegas was trying just to make the cut. But after rallying brilliantly for a 65, the young Colombian can try and win.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.com Chief of Correspondents
SOUTHPORT, England -- Things didn't look good after Camilo Villegas bogeyed his first two holes Friday during the second round of the 137th Open Championship.
He was 8 over at that point, flirting with making an early exit from his very first Open. So his priorities were clear.
"Just come on, grind it up and make the cut," Villegas recalled.
Not only did the young Colombian survive to play the weekend, he'll start the third round in contention, just two strokes off the lead held by K.J. Choi and one behind the surprising Greg Norman, who, at 53, is old enough to be Villegas' father. Don't believe it? Well, consider this: Norman's daughter Morgan was born the same year as Villegas was.
The 26-year-old Villegas got back on track and went on to make eight birdies over his next 16 holes, including five straight to close his round. His 5-under 65 was the low of the tournament to date and placed him at 1 over entering the weekend when gale-force winds are expected to howl Saturday.
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"(It was) Very interesting," Villegas said. "I obviously played unbelievable. (I) got off to a bad start, bogeyed the first two holes, and I don't know, I kept my composure after that. But somehow my caddie just told me to keep battling, keep grinding, and (I) came back with two birdies on No. 4 and 5. The back nine was obviously very special finishing with five birdies in a row."
Villegas actually was able to pick Norman's brain on Tuesday during a practice round with the Shark. And when the two-time Open champion talks, his playing partners heed his words.
"We talked about many things, and obviously links golf and these type of golf courses," Villegas said. "He had some good advice. And obviously when somebody like that tells you something, you'd better listen."
Norman, for his part, was impressed. The two also played together at the Canadian Skins Game last month, which Villegas, who has three top-10s in his last seven starts, ended up winning.
"He was hitting the ball, especially driver, very well when I played with him," Norman said. "He was hitting it extremely low, which you have to do around here obviously, and that obviously set him up very, very well. If you get the ball out there a little bit further you can be a little bit more aggressive with your little medium-to-shorter irons because you can get them at the flag a little better. ...
"His attitude and his demeanor on the golf course is just great. He knows he's got a lot of pressure on himself, too, because he's a good player, he hasn't won a major. He's talked about it. He wants to be there, and he wants to win, no question. The finish for him (Friday) was very, very good for him."
Villegas started his closing spurt with a 5-iron to 16 feet at the 14th hole. He got a lucky break at the 15th hole when his drive strayed left but settled into a good lie. A good 3-wood and a chip 9-iron then left Villegas 6 feet for his second birdie. The third came courtesy of a knock-down 5-iron that settled 15 feet from the pin at No. 16,
"I hit a good putt there, but I thought it wasn't going to break enough at the end, and it did," Villegas said. "It just snuck in on the right side of the hole, which was obviously nice."
The 17th hole is another par 5 and Villegas got up and down from the bunker there, holing a 3-footer for the birdie. And finally, much to his caddy's consternation, he hit driver at the 18th hole and it found the left rough. The roll wasn't about to end, though.
"I believe I had like 176 to the pin and I hit pitching wedge," Villegas said. "That tells you how funky it is to play golf around here. I mean, I was trying to bounce the ball about five yards short of the green and roll it up there. It jumped a little bit, bounced a little bit farther up, somehow it hit the pin, and I got a little lucky.
"So I looked at my caddie, and I said, 'Listen, we just got a little lucky here and let's take advantage of this one and close it up,' and rolled a nice one in."
Jim Furyk, who played with Villegas and finished at 2 over for the tournament, said a three-putt at the 14th hole might have lit a fire under the young Latin. The former U.S. Open champ deemed Villegas' birdie at the 16th hole "incredible."
"He played really well and knocked in some clutch putts," Furyk said.
The key for the big-hitting Villegas, who tied for ninth at the U.S. Open, during the second round clearly was his putter. He used 34 in shooting a first-round 76 but just 23 on Friday.
"Just trying to even it out, man," Villegas said, smiling, when a reporter asked about the turnaround.
"I thought about it a lot, I can tell you that. Yesterday everything was bad. I mean, my speed was bad, my short putts were not very good, my stroke wasn't feeling right, and today I just said, 'You know what, just don't think about it, just loosen it up.' Let the putter head do the work, not my hands, and that was obviously a good thought."
Villegas got to play in his first Open Championship courtesy of Kenny Perry, who opted to compete at the U.S. Bank Championship instead. The former Florida All-American arrived on Sunday and has made the most of his opportunity to explore links golf again after playing in two British Amateurs.
He loves what he calls the "funky" nature of the beast, and he means that in the most positive of ways. He has learned patience to withstand the ups and downs, and he's always been an imaginative player, which suits these windswept seaside courses nestled in the dunes.
"It's so different than what we're used to," Villegas said. "Downwind you can hit a driver that goes 370 yards, and then you get into the wind and you're hitting a driver 230. On the sixth hole I believe I had 205 to the front, and I killed a 3-wood, perfect, and it pitched two yards on. My 3-wood carries normally 260.
"So it's a strong wind, it's a heavy, like, atmosphere, and the ball really, really gets affected. It's very different."
But as well as he played on Friday -- for 16 holes, at least -- did Villegas think Royal Birkdale would yield such a low score in Saturday's wind and intermittent rain?
"Let me tell you, when you get on the first tee you never think about a score," he said. "You just think about every single shot because you don't know how bad it can get, when the weather is going to get like it was yesterday morning, so you're just trying to grind every single shot, and that's what I did."
He's learning, Greg. He's learning.