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Clarke surges up leaderboard with another 68

A player from Northern Ireland charged up the leaderboard at the British Open.

Just not the one you might expect.

Darren Clarke shot his second straight 2-under 68 on Friday, putting him solidly in contention heading to the weekend and showing his younger countrymen a thing or two at Royal St. George's.

Once the face of Northern Ireland golf, the 42-year-old Clarke became an afterthought when first Graeme McDowell, then Rory McIlroy claimed major championships. Maybe it's time for the old guy to get his title, too.

Clarke rolled in a 90-footer for eagle at the seventh and closed his round with a birdie at the tough 18th, going to the clubhouse tied for the lead, if only for a moment.

Simon Dyson of England, an alternate, got off to a blistering start with three straight birdies in the afternoon to push his score to 5 under.

Clarke was one stroke back in a tie with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez and American Lucas Glover, who followed up an opening 66 with a solid 70 on a warm, sunny day along the English seaside.

"I didn't hole as many putts as I did yesterday," Glover said. "But I'm happy to grind out even par."

Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, emerged as the top hope for the U.S., which has gone five straight majors without a title — its longest drought of the modern Grand Slam era. Also in contention from the other side of the Atlantic: Chad Campbell, who shot 68 for a 3-under 137 total, as well as Ricky Barnes and Jeff Overton, both at 3 under with holes left to play.

The co-leaders from the opening round were both struggling. Thomas Bjorn bogeyed the second and third holes to drop two strokes behind Dyson. Amateur Tom Lewis also was 2 over for the day, though he did have a good view of the shot of the day.

Playing partner Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion Lewis was named after, sent a charge through the place with a hole-in-one at the sixth.

Pulling out a 4-iron, Watson sent the ball soaring to the green, then watched it bounce one time before dropping into the cup.

The 61-year-old threw both arms in the air, high-fived Henrik Stenson, shook hands with Lewis, then took a bow toward the grandstand.

"Wish I could have seen it go in," the 61-year-old Watson quipped as he walked toward the hole to retrieve his ball.

It was the second hole-in-one at this Open. Dustin Johnson aced the 16th during the opening round.

The morning starters definitely caught a break with the weather. Early on, there was barely a cloud in the sky and little wind off the Strait of Dover, the flags hanging limply above the grandstand.

Clarke took advantage.

"I enjoy any time I get back on links," he said. "It's the biggest and best tournament in the world — why wouldn't I enjoy it? It's the only major that's played on the turf the game started on."

Another prominent player dropped out. Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen withdrew Friday because of a back injury. He was unlikely to make the cut after opening with a 76.

McDowell also was in danger of going home, even after opening with a 68. He was having a terrible time, taking double-bogey at the ninth and hobbling toward the finish at 5 over for the tournament.

The breeze picked up in the afternoon, which worked against the late-early portion of the draw. That included McIlroy, the heavy favorite but off to a sluggish start with a 71, and top-ranked Luke Donald (71).

McIlroy was coming off an dominating win in the U.S. Open that made the 22-year-old the centerpiece of this major. He rallied from a sloppy start Thursday and had no complaints.

"Anywhere around even par is a good start," he said.

It didn't feel that way by the end of the first day.

The morning starters were a combined 223-over par. The afternoon half combined to go only 94 over. There were a dozen rounds in the 60s in the morning, and 23 in the afternoon.

Lewis started out as the first amateur to lead the Open since 1968, the first to pace any major since Mike Reid at the 1976 U.S. Open.

The nerves began to show on Friday.

"I'll be happy just to make the cut and be leading amateur," Lewis said. "Never mind the top of the leaderboard."

Bjorn had missed the cut in four of five events before he got to Royal St. George's, his game in disarray, his heart heavy after the death of his father.

The 40-year-old Dane put that all aside for one day at least, getting a bit of payback at a course where he squandered a major title eight years ago.

Bjorn had a two-stroke lead with three holes to play at the '03 Open — "one hand on the trophy," he would say afterward — but threw it all away when he needed three swings to escape a pot bunker at No. 16.

That allowed Ben Curtis to steal the claret jug in one of golf's greatest shockers.

Bjorn didn't get in this year until Vijay Singh withdrew on Monday. When someone suggested that he might have been better off not playing to avoid memories of his meltdown, the Dane cut him off.

"A couple of people asked me that question, 'Would you not just want to go home?'" Bjorn said. "This is the Open championship. Where else do you want to be?"

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National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963