Snedeker learning to love the links

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- On Wednesday, in a practice round at the Open Championship, Brandt Snedeker made a hole-in-one on the par-4, 336-yard 16th hole. There were about six people in his gallery and no cameras. That moment could have been the highlight of his week or just a foreshadowing of great things to come.

On Friday morning -- when his score counted, the crowds numbered in the thousands and there were cameras everywhere -- the 32-year-old former U.S. Amateur Public Links champion shot a 6-under-par 64 in his second round to take the lead at 10 under, which matches the lowest 36-hole total in Open Championship history. On a mild morning with calm winds, Snedeker blew past the first-round pace set by Adam Scott, who shot his own 64 on Thursday.

Snedeker, the 2007 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, had six birdies Friday and, for the second consecutive day, had a bogey-free round. Four of his birdies came on the front nine, where the highlight was a 45-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole.

"If you're putting it good like I have been for the last couple of weeks, you feel you can play pretty well if you can just drive it [in] play," Snedeker said. "And when I haven't driven it in play, I've been able to get up around the greens this week.

"I call it boring golf. I'm shooting away from every pin, trying to put it 25, 30 feet away and hopefully make some putts, which I've done the first two days and hopefully plan on doing the next few days."

Snedeker had missed the cut in his three previous trips to golf's oldest major championship. Like many American players accustomed to target golf, he was very uncomfortable with links courses, despite his having played over here in college in the British Amateur and loving the local culture.

But he would learn to embrace it with the help of his idol, Tom Watson, after the two men played together in a practice round at Royal Birkdale before the 2008 Open. Watson told Snedeker that he had initially hated links golf before he went on to win five Opens.

"You've got to kind of embrace it, realize that you're going to get good bounces, bad bounces, but you don't really expect the worst and hope for the best," Snedeker said. "I tried to do it the first three times around here, but, unfortunately, I'm still too used to playing American golf, still too used to trying to play at pins and hit shots I probably shouldn't hit.

"This week, I'm doing a much better job, even if I had a sand wedge in my hand, hitting it 25 or 30 feet away from it, just to make sure I don't put myself in a bad spot."

Last month, Snedeker experienced a hard cough in the second round at the Memorial and cracked a rib. Then he took a month off to heal, missing the U.S. Open. He might have been surprised by his performance in the first two rounds here at Lytham if it were not for his history of playing well coming off injuries.

Since turning pro in 2004, Snedeker has battled injuries and health problems, but he has responded to those episodes by winning. After breaking his collarbone in a freak accident in 2005, he won on the Web.com Tour for a second time to secure his PGA Tour card. He has had victories in the past two years after hip surgeries. If he holds on, this would mark his fourth win after an injury.

"I guess I'm pretty good well-rested," Snedeker said. "I feel good. I'm fresh. My body isn't concerned for the first time in a long time with an injury. Maybe that's why I play well after injuries."

In January, he won the Farmers Insurance Open in a playoff over Kyle Stanley. He had another good finish at the Accenture Match Play, where he lost to Peter Hanson in the third round. But he hasn't had a top-10 since cracking his driver at Doral.

Finally, during a session last week with his teacher, Todd Anderson, in Sea Island, Ga., Snedeker settled on a new driver. Through two rounds at Lytham, Snedeker has hit 17 of 28 fairways and 31 of 36 greens.

"These are the best greens I've putted on in a British Open," Snedeker said. "They feel almost like poa annua back in the States. They feel similar to that. When you have good pace, you're not really worried about hitting it too close because you can get it 40 feet and get a two-putt and get out of there. I think that's the big reason I played so well."

Although Snedeker is new to being in Open contention, he has faced pressure in a major. At the 2008 Masters, he played in the final group with the eventual winner, Trevor Immelman, on Saturday and Sunday. In the final round, a nervous Snedeker hit pull-hooks all day and shot 77 to finish 4 shots behind Immelman in a tie for third. After the round, he broke down in tears, which was probably the most poignant moment of the tournament.

But the experience of four straight days in contention at the Masters will serve him well this weekend at the Open.

"I think I took out of it trying, no matter how much I talked down how much it meant to me, how much a major does mean to everybody out here," Snedeker said. "This weekend, I feel prepared. I've been in some pretty tight spots in the States, and I've been playing in playoffs and playing against the best players in the world and stuff like that.

"Obviously it's going to be a lot more over the weekend, but I've got something to fall back on."

Still, he's new to the unique pressure of Open weekends, where the wind and rain can cast a shadow over the proceedings at any moment. At the '08 Masters, he was chasing the leader. Now he'll have to play the role of the front-runner.

"I've got a cushion, which is nice," Snedeker said. "I don't have to play the best golf over the next 36 holes. I have to play good golf, but maybe not the best of anybody."

That might be wishful thinking, especially when you have the likes of Tiger Woods and Scott lurking close by.