After bogeying Nos. 15 and 16 in windy conditions at St. George’s, Clark got up-and-down from about 50 feet from a semi-plugged lie on the downslope in a greenside bunker on the par-4 18th. He was 7 under after an even-par 70.
“Really had no chance,” Clark said. “And I would love to say I was trying to do what I did, but I was trying to punt a little bit out to the right and somehow when I came into the ball it like plopped up to the left and landed in the rough and trickled down to 4 feet. It was definitely the best save I’ve had of the year. It was pretty awesome.”
McIlroy (68) was tied with Matt Fitzpatrick (70), Alex Smalley (67), Keith Mitchell (67) and Jim Knous (67). McIlroy had to wait three years to defend his 2019 title because of the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled golf’s fourth-oldest championship the past two years.
“Challenging,” McIlroy said. “I think the only thing this golf course needs for it to feel a little more major like is just a bit of length. I think that’s the only thing that’s missing. The rough is very penal, the greens are tricky, the wind’s up, it’s drying out a little bit because of the wind. All of a sudden you’ve got a pretty testing golf course.”
Fitzpatrick closed double bogey-birdie-bogey-bogey-bogey.
“Just a poor finish,” Fitzpatrick said. “Just didn’t hole the putts I needed to on the last three. Just pathetic. Yeah, just pathetic finish really with the putter.”
Clark birdied the par-14th to reach 9 under, then bogeyed the next two. On the par-5 15, he drove into the right fairway bunker and saved bogey with a 10-footer. On the par-3 16th, he missed a 7½-foot par try after hitting short and right into a bunker.
“Honestly, I played really well,” Clark said. “It was tough out there. It was windy, there was some tough pin placements. You guys have seen, these greens are very tough and you get into some tough spots where you have to be defensive even from 10, 15 feet.”
Clark opened with a 63 on Thursday after rallying Monday in a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier to get into the field next week at The Country Club outside Boston.
Masters champion Scottie Scheffler was 4 under after a 67.
“First PGA Tour event and I’m in a decent position going into the weekend,” Cockerill said. “Kind of where I want to be and see if we can throw a low one on the board tomorrow and see what happens.”
PGA champion Justin Thomas also was 2 under after his second 69.