TROON, Scotland -- Skip Kendall would have done just about anything to get to the British Open.
Unlike a slew of Americans who didn't think golf's oldest championship was worth the effort, Kendall saw only opportunity when he played a 36-hole qualifier last month at Congressional, the first of its kind in the United States.
On Friday, he showed them what they were missing.
Kendall holed out from a pot bunker for birdie and rolled in a 50-foot eagle putt on his way to a 5-under 66 at Royal Troon, giving him a one-shot lead over Thomas Levet of France.
"Any time I can try to get in a major championship, I'm going to be there," Kendall said. "These are important to me, to not only test yourself, but to try to win one. And the only way you can do that is to try to get in."
Last year should have been enough to raise anyone's hopes about hoisting the claret jug.
Ben Curtis won the British Open in his first shot at a major as the 396th-ranked player in the world. Kendall is far more accomplished, although the 39-year-old journeyman still is saddled with an 0-for-310 record in his 10 seasons on the PGA Tour.
Maybe that's about to change.
"I really feel like I can win out on the PGA Tour, as well as any place else," Kendall said. "I think it's just a matter of time. Hopefully, this will be mine."
But there is plenty of work left, and plenty of proven players on his heels going into a weekend on the Ayrshire Coast where the famed wind of Troon has yet to show its teeth.
Vijay Singh and Ernie Els were among those three shots behind.
"We've put ourselves in contention," Els said. "Let's see what happens."
Masters champion Phil Mickelson and U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen were lurking four shots back, along with former Masters champion Mike Weir.
Tiger Woods was six back, keeping alive his hopes of ending an 0-for-8 drought in the majors.
"I'm right there with a chance," he said after a 71.
Everyone is chasing a guy who used to wait tables at an Olive Garden in Florida and hit balls in a grassy field - still wearing his black trousers, white shirt and bow tie - between the lunch and dinner shifts.
Kendall is scrappy at 150 pounds and full of self-belief. When he sat down for his interview and noticed some names scribbled on the veneer table, he figured he was supposed to sign it, too. But a Royal & Ancient official politely told him that it was only for British Open champions, and he would have to wait until Sunday night.
"I know there's a long way to go and this is only halfway done," said Kendall, who was at 7-under 135. "Hopefully, I'll be signing my name right here in a couple of days."
What promised to be a second round of raging winds was merely a replica of the first day, with only a fresh breeze off the Firth of Clyde that hardly kept the world's top players from good scores.
Levet, who qualified for the British Open by winning last week in Loch Lomond with a final-round 63, made two quick birdies and was the leader for most of the day. He wound up with a 70, his only blemish coming at the 12th when a chip up the slope rolled back to his feet.
"You look like an idiot when you make mistakes like that," Levet said. "It's what happens when you play so good. I was not missing a green. I didn't have a chip since yesterday."
K.J. Choi (69) and Barry Lane of England (70) were at 137, while the heavyweights weighed in at 4-under 138.
Els had another great performance at the Postage Stamp eighth hole that only felt like another ace. His tee shot landed in an awkward lie in the bunker, he blasted out to 30 feet and made it for par. Els also chipped in for birdie on the par-3 14th and wound up with a 69 for the fifth straight time at Royal Troon.
"I guess it's a good number for Troon," Els said with slight resignation. "We had good weather again today, so I felt I could have shot better than that. But I shot what I shot."
The loudest cheers were for Colin Montgomerie, who grew up at Troon and returned for the first time with low expectations because of personal strife (an impending divorce) and a bad game (No. 71 in the world). Monty is living large at this Open, his round not even ruined by missing a 2-foot par putt on the final hole.
"Forget that," Montgomerie said. "A perfect round of golf has never been played on a links course and never will be. I would have taken 69 to start the day."
Also at 138 were Todd Hamilton (67) and Michael Campbell (71).
Mickelson tied Kendall for the best round of the day, boosted by four birdies on the first six holes that carried him to a bogey-free 66. It matched Lefty's best round in a British Open, the only major where he has failed to finish in the top 10. He also had a 66 in the second round at St. Andrews in 2000.
"I'm not thinking about winning just yet," Mickelson said. "I'm four shots back of a lot of people. I may have to play another great round, and if I'm going to make up shots, I've got to do it on the front nine."
The cut came at 3-over 145, sending defending champion Ben Curtis (75-74) home without the claret jug. Also missing the cut was Greg Norman (73-76) for the first time since 1980.
Woods extended his cut streak to 127 tournaments, although he needs a great round to get into serious contention. He has made only six birdies in relatively tame conditions at Royal Troon, unable to get the ball in close range.
Then again, two of Kendall's most memorable shots were hardly tap-ins.
He hit into a pot bunker on the par-4 third hole and was starting to get edgy about his game. All that changed when he popped it out and watched it disappear into the cup.
"A pretty easy bunker shot, but how many times does the ball go into the hole?" he said. "It got my day going."
He also ended it in style, hitting a 3-wood just short of the 16th green, close enough for him to use his putter. The ball climbed onto the green and never left its line until it kissed the pin and dropped for eagle.
Until then, the highlight of his week was bringing his mother to Britain to celebrate her 80th birthday. Plus, he had his first brush with royalty when he met Prince Andrew behind the 11th green during the first round.
"That was pretty exciting for me," Kendall said. "Seemed like a great guy."
By the end of the round, Kendall was the star attraction.
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