Birthday boy Coetzee in mix at British Open

AP Sports WriterJuly 18, 2014 

— George Coetzee tapped in a putt on the 15th green for a third straight birdie at the British Open and glanced up at the leaderboard.

His name was right at the top.

Not a bad way to celebrate his 28th birthday.

"It was quite a good feeling to look at my name and be at the top of the leaderboard," said Coetzee, who was playing in front of his girlfriend and mother at what has always been his favorite major.

But briefly taking a share of the second-round lead — at that stage, he was at 6 under with Rory McIlroy — proved to be his undoing on Friday.

The nerves kicked in, the drives went awry, the putts stopped dropping and Coetzee promptly bogeyed the next two holes. Pulling himself together, he rolled in a birdie from 4 feet at the par-5 No. 18 for a 3-under 69 and the clubhouse lead after the morning starters.

On 5 under overall, he finished the day tied for ninth — seven shots behind leader McIlroy.

"It's always going to be my birthday week (at the British Open)," the South African said. "It's nice to play well, obviously, in a very prestigious event. And to have my birthday coincide with it is also nice."

Like so many rising South African golfers, Coetzee cites compatriot Ernie Els as his idol.

But while two-time champion Els has struggled at Royal Liverpool and missed the cut at 8 over, Coetzee has played through the toughest conditions on the first two days — the wind was up on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning — and come out smiling.

He also coped well in the wind on his British Open debut in 2011 at Royal St. George's, starting out with two 69s and placing 15th.

It's somewhat surprising for a guy who grew up playing on parkland courses.

"As a junior, I wasn't very good at the coast," Coetzee said. "Up until the age of 16, I never broke 80 at the coast. Never mind playing in links, I couldn't understand why the ball was going so short.

"But as the years went on, I tried to kind of teach myself how to play at the coast."

At No. 72, Coetzee is the fifth-highest South African in the rankings. He claimed his first career win on the European Tour at the Joburg Open but missed the cut at three of his last four tournaments coming into the Open.

Coetzee will be in one of the later pairings for the third round on Saturday but his Friday night birthday celebrations were going to be low-key with his visiting family members.

"A couple of Cokes," he said.

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