We love the British Open for its quirkiness—the baked-out fairways, the pancake-stack bunkers and the fans who clap for a good shot no matter where it ends up.
Apart from an absence of game-changing weather conditions (another Open favorite), Thursday at Carnoustie was a reminder of everything that is good about the British Open. We saw a golf course that Johnny Miller, who is 71 years old and turned pro the same year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, called the firmest he's ever seen in his life. We saw the two-time reigning U.S. Open champion play a bunker shot on both his knees...and still leave it in the bunker. We saw well-struck shots rewarded and poor ones ruthlessly punished.
Here's hoping for three more days like this one. And here are five thoughts from Thursday's action, which spanned roughly 15 hours.
Brown is beautiful, and baked out is beautiful
All the talk in the lead-up to this tournament centered on how firm Carnoustie is. A historically dry Scottish summer led to a dearth of moisture throughout the country and Scottish greenskeepers aren't the type to combat Mother Nature by emptying their hoses. What resulted was a "baked out" course—we heard tales of irons rolling out 300+ yards, of drives reaching 400 yards without even being hit that hard.
It's one thing to hear about how the course is playing in the practice rounds. It's another to see it when the tournament itself starts. From the first televised shot, it was clear that Carnoustie is, indeed, the firmest golf course in recent major championship history. Drives were rolling out 100 yards. Approach shots were landing well short of greens and racing over putting surfaces. But, unlike Saturday at Shinnecock, the course never crossed into "unfair" territory. Not one player (that I heard) complained about conditions being flukey or hokey or anything like that. Instead, they spoke of the firmness with an appreciation for how different a test this week is. Rickie Fowler, who shot even par, put it best: "It's fair. It's fun."
It was wonderful to see, and an always-welcomed reminder that a golf course does not need to be green to be good. Rain is in the forecast for Friday, and it will be interesting to see how that affects the firmness.
If you predicted this leaderboard, please collect your prize
The major championships are a who's who of world-class players. Every so-called expert (this one included) smuggly chooses one of roughly 20 players as their pick to win the championship. Then, a day like today happens and reminds everyone that golf is probably the hardest sport there is to forecast.
Kevin Kisner, who leads after a five-under 66, is no slouch at all—he's the world's 33rd ranked player and still has a fighting chance of making the Ryder Cup team. But his last six starts leading up to the Open: 55, MC, T74, T52, MC, MC. Then he goes and shoots 66 on one of the hardest golf courses in the world. Right behind him on the leaderboard is a pair of South Africans...but it's not Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel or even Branden Grace or Dylan Frittelli. Instead, it's world No. 144 Erik van Rooyen world No. 444 Zander Lombard. Tony Finau is also at four-under, and the big Utahn deserves a shoutout for his play in the majors. He took T10 at Augusta after famously turning his ankle in the par-3 contest and played in the final group on Sunday at the U.S. Open and finished fifth.
The average world ranking of the seven player at three-under or better is 128. The cream will likely rise to the crop and some of the game's biggest stars will make their inexorable journey to the top of the leaderboard, but the unexpectedness of today was refreshing.
All in all, a solid start for Tiger Woods
Thursday saw the full range of the modern Tiger Woods experience. There was the health scare—when he showed up to the golf course with strips of kinesiology tape on his neck, the internet went into full-panic mode before news broke that he just slept funky. There was the strong play that prompted the "he's back" discussions—Tiger was two-under through 4 and played a stress-free front-nine 34. There was the erratic stretch that showed this isn't the Tiger of old—Woods labored through much of the back nine and made two bogeys in three holes to drop back to even par. And, to finish it all off, there was the fierce grinder's mentality that never left, even when his health was at its worst—Tiger finished with three straight pars on Carnoustie's devilish final stretch (more on that later) to get in at even-par 71. As the saying goes, you can't win a golf tournament on Thursday, but you certainly can lose it. Tiger is five back of Kevin Kisner's lead with 54 holes to play. Not a bad place to be at all.
The finishing three-hole stretch is a bear
There was a familiar pattern today. It went like this: Player X comes to the 16th tee working on a decent round. Player X gets his lunch eaten by the 16-17-18 stretch and suddenly his round isn't so decent anymore. Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson both fall into this category, as Spieth played the final three in two-over to shoot 72. Johnson, who struggled mightily all day, made a triple-bogey 7 on 18 to shoot a five-over 76. The 18th isn't just the site of the most infamous collapse in major championship history—it's a brutally difficult hole with disaster lurking on both sides of the razor-thin fairway. Remember, Padraig Harrington would have put himself into the Van de Velde conversation in 2007 had he not eventually won the tournament. Harrington put two in the burn coming up 18, but no on remembers because he won the darn thing. Don't be surprised if we're treated—subjected to?—more fireworks this year.
Brooks Koepka wows with his talent, wins with his resolve
Brooks Koepka's physique gets all the attention, and rightfully so. He looks more like a linebacker than your typical golfer, and he represents a new generation of fitness-conscious players. But there are a number of really big, really strong golfers, and none of them have won back-to-back U.S. Opens. Koepka wins not because of his talent but because of his steely resolve.
Case in point: Koepka was five-over after nine holes, a brutal opening leg that included his hitting a bunker shot from his knees and making a double-bogey 6. All he did was bounce back to shoot 31 on the back nine and get in at one-over 72, playing himself right back into the tournament. And remember, Koepka opened this year's U.S. Open with a five-over 75 which put him seven shots back of the lead. At Carnoustie, he's just six back, and he's nowhere near out of it. And even if he does fall out of it, he won't play like it. That's why he's who he is.
Second-round action resumes at 1:30 a.m. ET on Friday.