ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The Open with the fish and chips and the blustery weather started out like the one with the trains and bumpy greens.
Four weeks after Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson finished 1-2 at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, they were at it again as they played in the same group and headlined the first round at the 144th British Open at the Old Course on Thursday.
“Everybody knows the weather Friday and Saturday is going to be very difficult,” Johnson said after taking the lead with a bogey-free, 7-under-par 65 in calm morning conditions. “So today I thought it was very important to get off to a good start and try to make as many birdies as you can.”
Spieth, who is trying to become the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year—part of his quest to win an unprecedented calendar-year grand slam—showed no nerves as he birdied five of his first seven holes and weathered a few loose shots on the back nine for a 67.
“I am very, very pleased with the start,” said Spieth, who bogeyed the difficult par-4 17th hole but birdied 18 despite hitting a hook off the tee that he admitted would have been in trouble on most courses. “I saw a 65 in our group, and if D.J. keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance.”
Players who went off in the afternoon faced much tougher conditions as the wind kicked up to create perfect weather for kite surfing on Chariots of Fire Beach. Still, there were some good rounds, none better than the 66s shot by rising star Danny Willett and veteran grinder Zach Johnson, who was one of a handful of players who wore a ski cap as temperatures plunged.
“Tough day, obviously, with the wind pumping out there,” said Willett, a 27-year-old Brit who was under the radar of many fans until finishing third at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play. Playing in the group behind Zach Johnson on Thursday, Willett shot a 3-under 33 on the back nine.
They were two of the six players at 6-under, a shot off the lead, a group that also included Jason Day, Robert Streb and a couple of long-dormant major champions, Retief Goosen and Paul Lawrie, both 46.
Even with the afternoon wind there were red numbers everywhere, with a dozen rounds of 67 or better. Still seeking his first win since the 2013 British Open, Phil Mickelson was among those who fought through the elements in the afternoon to break par. He bogeyed 17 but birdied 18 to shoot 70.
Shaking off his ghastly U.S. Open finish, in which he three-putted the last green to lose to Spieth, Dustin Johnson, playing with Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama, eagled the par-5 fifth hole on the way to a front-nine 31. Even for the shorter-hitting Spieth, the outward nine was imminently gettable.
“As easy as you’ll see it,” said Luke Donald, who shot 68, “A lot of wedges, greens are holding and soft.”
Spieth got to 6-under with a birdie at the par-3 11th hole but quickly bogeyed the 13th with an errant drive, and dropped another shot at the difficult Road Hole (17) before pouring in a left-to-right birdie putt on 18.
“To see that putt go in was nice,” said Spieth, who has four victories already this year and would go to No. 1 in the world with a victory, passing the injured Rory McIlroy. “To steal the one back from 17 and to shoot even par on the back nine—once you turn into that breeze, that is a good score.”
Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion, was one of the more surprising names on the leaderboard, as was two-time U.S. Open champion Goosen, who came into this week trying to bounce back from three straight missed cuts. Day played well after his vertigo problems at the U.S. Open last month, and British Open rookie Streb, a 28-year-old Kansas State product, said he was helped by playing a practice round earlier this week with Tom Watson.
The five-time British Open champion, who at age 65 is playing in his last Open barring a miracle the next three days, struggled on the back nine. After making birdies on three of his first 10 holes, his round fell apart with double-bogeys at the 13th, 16th and 17th, and he signed for a 76.
Tiger Woods also shot 76 in the easier morning wave. He hit his second shot into the burn and bogeyed the first hole, and left his approach shot some 60 yards short of the second green and bogeyed it, too. He made just one birdie. “Discouraging,” Woods said. “I was a little—angered a little bit.”
“He was just struggling a little bit getting into the greens,” said Day, who played alongside Woods and 2010 Open winner Louis Oosthuizen (67).
Dustin Johnson, who said he couldn’t have hit the ball better from tee to green at Chambers Bay, hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation and averaged 322 yards off the tee at St. Andrews. His fiancé Paulina Gretzky and agent David Winkle looked on from in front of the Old Course Hotel as Johnson made a hard-working par out of the left rough on the 17th.
David Lingmerth, the Swede who won the Memorial earlier this year, played in the fourth group of the day and proved there were plenty of birdies to be had as he shot a 7-under 29 on the front nine. But he fell back with a 40 on the much tougher back nine for an odd looking 69.
The logjam of players in red numbers Thursday may experience a similar swing Friday. As always at the Open, it all depends on the weather.