There was nothing bland about the 149th Open Championship except its start. English journeyman Richard Bland, 48, hit the opening tee shot in Thursday’s early morning light. It found the fairway, a typically Bland result.
What followed next was an atypical scoring onslaught despite breezy conditions at Royal St. George’s, a funky collection of humps, bumps, deep rough and super-sized greens framed by fearsome-looking fescue overlooking the English Channel.
Two former Open champions made significant opening statements. South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, fresh off his runner-up finish in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, fired a bogey-free 64, 6 under par, finishing with a nice par save on the final hole after his drive found a fairway pot bunker. Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth used a run of four straight birdies to close the front nine to shoot 65, punctuated by a bold 25-foot birdie putt at the 16th.
There were eight scores of 66 or better posted, all but two of them posted by players who were early starters. The winds picked up slightly in the afternoon, giving the morning half of the field an advantage.
Brian Harman matched Spieth’s 65. Dylan Fritelli, Mackenzie Hughes, Stewart Cink, Benjamin Hebert and Webb Simpson shot 66.
It should be a concern to the other contenders that Oosthuizen and Spieth got off to fast starts. They’re in good form, they’ve got tons of major championship experience, they’re good putters and they’ve proven they know how to win the Open.
Oosthuizen is a soft-spoken, unassuming son of a farmer who was quick to point out that there is a lot of golf left. But it is difficult not to compare this 64 with the opening 65 he shot at St. Andrews in the 2010 Open, which Oosthuizen went on to win by seven strokes.
“It was quite windy starting the day, I’d have taken one or two under par,” said Oosthuizen, who recently purchased a ranch in Ocala, Fla. “Everything went well today. Probably in my mind, it was the perfect round I could have played today. I didn’t make many mistakes.”
Oosthuizen parred the first seven holes, then birdied seven of the next nine holes. “It happened quickly,” he said.
His recent surge is easy to explain. He still owns the sweetest swing in golf, but he went from 121st in strokes gained putting three years ago to No. 1 this year.
Spieth is still considered the game’s best putter and the man with the best and most creative short game. So it’s no wonder he loves links golf, especially at Royal St. George’s, where mounding provides unique challenges.
“The wind is up, the pins are on knobs and crowns and they’ve put a few in some really fun spots for us today where you could get at them in some bowls,” Spieth said. “But that’s only a few of the holes. The rest are on some of the more difficult locations to kind of separate the field.”
It’s been a long road back from 2017, when Spieth won the Open at Royal Birkdale with a closing charge over the last five holes, but Spieth said he feels as good about his game now as he has at any time. “I’ve been trending the right way and certainly had a chance this year at Augusta,” Spieth said. “I’m progressing nicely.”
Matching Spieth’s 65 was Harman, who was part of the day’s hottest group. He, Hughes and Fritelli combined to shoot a cumulative 13 under par.
“Walking off 17, I thought, Wow, this is quite the group,” said Hughes, a Canadian. “We were all 4 under, then Brian birdied the last. I don’t think there will be a group that will really come close to that. It was fun.”
Cink won the 2009 Open in a playoff with golf legend Tom Watson. At 48, he resurrected his career with a pair of surprising victories in the last year. His opening 66 was a continuation of that good play.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of experience and I like the way my game has been,” Cink said. “I’m having a great time, I’m not too stressed out about the results. I’m hoping to get in the mix and give this thing a run like I did in 2009 and draw on some of those memories. I definitely have the confidence to do that.”
The day’s birdie barrage was entertaining, but it was just as fun to watch the green-shirted marshals scamper through tall rough to mark errant drives in a weird kind of Where’s-Waldo game.
Former U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau was among those who gave the marshals a workout. The big-hitting DeChambeau found only four fairways but was able to salvage a round of 71. He was not oozing confidence with his tee ball.
“Right now, the driver sucks,” DeChambeau said. “It’s not a good (driver) face for me. I’m living on the razor’s edge. It’s a golf course that’s pretty short so when I hit driver and it doesn’t go in the fairway, it’s in the hay and it’s tough for me to get it out onto the green.”
Some notable stars fared better than others.
PGA Champion Phil Mickelson struggled all day, especially on the greens, and posted an ugly 80.
U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm of Spain birdied the final hole for 71. He managed only one other birdie and suffered a double bogey at the 9th hole.
Dustin Johnson, who regained the world No. 1 ranking last week, recovered from back-to-back bogeys at the 8th and 9th holes to shoot 68.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, whose last major championship title came in 2014, had an up-and-down day. He made three bogeys in a row on the front side but birdied the 18th to scrape out an even-par 70.
Ireland’s Shane Lowry, who got an extra year to enjoy being the Open champion when the event was canceled last year due to the pandemic, got off to a slow start, driving into deep rough en route to bogeys on the opening two holes. Three birdies on the back side helped him recover to 71.
“It was a very special day for me,” said Lowry. “The announcement on the first tee, I've been waiting over a year for that, so it was quite nice. I got off to a pretty nervy start. But it's so good to have the crowds here and it's so good to be playing in the Open Championship like we know. Like the big grandstands and the big crowds and getting claps.”
Lowry rated his play as “pretty average” but joked that his round probably seemed worse because he was paired with Oosthuizen, the tournament leader.
“I battled hard,” Lowry said. “On to tomorrow.”
More Day 1 British Open Coverage from Morning Read:
- Bryson DeChambeau Rips Gear, Says Driver 'Sucks' After Uneven Opening Round
- Rory McIlroy's Putter, And History, Work Against Him in Round 1
- Spieth (65) Enjoys Vintage Opening Round in Quest to Cap Comeback Season
- Louis Oosthuizen, Jordan Spieth Start Fast in Round 1
- Phil Mickelson Tied for Last After Shooting Ugly 80
- Cink Eyes Follow-up Act to 2009 Open Title Over Tom Watson
- England's Richard Bland Relishes First Tee Shot Thursday Morning
-Weather is Always a Factor at British Open -- Especially This Week