LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Rise and shine.
That was the story of the first round of the Open Championship, as early starters tore up Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Adam Scott needed a birdie on the 18th hole to become the first man to shoot 62 at a major championship, but the stylish Aussie made bogey and had to settle for 64 and a one-stroke lead over Paul Lawrie, Zach Johnson and Nicholas Colsaerts.
Scott, Lawrie and Johnson all teed off by 9:09 a.m. and enjoyed only the slightest breeze on a rain-softened course. "It was just a nice walk in the park today," Scott said. A quartet of major champions also took advantage of early tee times to post 67s: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Graeme McDowell and Bubba Watson.
Stronger zephyrs, cooler temperatures and an annoying drizzle in the afternoon toughened the course a tad, making Colsaerts's afternoon 65 and Rory McIlroy's 67 all the more impressive. Still, for the day, 36 players broke par, including eight previous major championship winners.
"The day was perfect to do it," said Sergio Garcia. "The greens were soft. The fairways were soft. So if you're hitting the ball half decent, you could attack most of the pins. And then the greens are in very good shape, so you could roll some putts in."
Scott took only 26 swipes with his broomstick and afterward couldn't resist a little gloating, saying, "My putting has improved out-of-sight. I mean, two years ago I was 180th on Tour, and now I'm pretty good."
But the real key to his round was a change in mindset. Scott's favorite hobby is surfing, and on the golf course he can radiate a Spicoli-like mellowness. A lack of fight has particularly hurt him during some sketchy first rounds at recent major championships, inspiring Scott's caddie, the oft-surly Steve Williams, to issue a challenge.
"He wanted me to go to that first tee today like it was the 72nd hole and you have [to have] three to win, and really switch yourself on from the first hole," Scott said. "That was a good little trigger he kind of helped out with."
Scott, who turned 32 at the start of Open week, spent his twenties struggling to perform at the majors, but a rousing tie for second at last year's Masters has given him the missing self-belief. His 64 on Thursday tied the lowest British Open score at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, but he'll need to push deeper into red numbers to hold off a pursuing pack of seasoned champions.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champ, winged into England straight from a walk-off birdie at the John Deere Classic. A run of six birdies in 10 holes fueled his 65. "There's a lot of momentum coming from last week," Johnson said.
Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion, arrived at Lytham enjoying his own renaissance, with three top-3 finishes this season on the European tour, including a victory in Qatar that lifted him into the world top 50 for the first time in nearly a decade.
Lawrie, 43, then made headlines by skipping the U.S. Open, saying the course setup didn't suit him. But the Scotsman is at home on the linksland and conjured a strong opening salvo despite some iffy ballstriking. "Probably the strangest start of my career," he said after the round. "I didn't really hit many good shots, and I was three under. Chipped in twice and holed it from off the green."
Woods's round was far more monotonous — he stuck to a conservative gameplan while hitting 13 fairways and 15 greens. Lytham is dotted with 206 pot bunkers and Woods, a three-time Open champ, relishes that kind of tactical challenge. After the round he spoke about how he goes from point A to B so adroitly. "I was just playing to my little sections, and I had my game plan to those sections," Woods said.
He did that exceedingly well during the first two rounds of the U.S. Open while Watson, his playing partner, mindlessly bashed away, setup be damned. A chastened Bubba admitted Thursday that he has belatedly learned a few lessons. "Playing in a major championship, you've got to play smarter, I guess," he said. "I'm not very good at playing smarter. I learned a lot by watching [Woods], how he hit a lot of irons off the tee, played really smart." His more judicious decision-making allowed Watson, the reigning Masters champ, to tour Lytham with only one bogey on his scorecard.
With low scoring and a strong leaderboard so far, Friday becomes an important moving day, but who does what is, to a point, in the lap of the golf gods. Says Lawrie, "Well, the weather obviously dictates how you feel and how you play."
For the second round, the tee times will be flip-flopped, with Thursday's early starters being sent out in the afternoon, and vice versa. But one of the cruelties of the Open is how unfair the weather can be. The forecast calls for rain in the morning and then a pleasant afternoon, meaning the early-late wave could benefit two days running.
Woods doesn't sound too worked-up about it either way. "That's the forecast," he said. "But the forecast hasn't been right all week. Nice job to have, huh?"