ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It was quiet when Paul Lawrie teed off to start the British Open early Thursday morning. Too quiet. When he stepped to the tee at 6:30, there was no rain, heavy clouds, pleasant temperatures, seagulls dozing on the nearby beach as they waited for the tide to flow out, a small handful of fans and limp flags.
Limp flags? Who stole Scotland? Where were Monday’s gales and Wednesday’s sideways rain?
This British Open, celebrating its 150th birthday, didn’t stay quiet for long. Thursday morning was an invitation to red numbers, and the golfers lucky enough to draw early tee times took full advantage of a softened course left defenseless by the absent breeze.
That isn’t likely to happen again Friday morning. The weather forecast calls for winds gusting above 20 mph and heavy rain, especially in the morning. If the bad weather hits early and clears out by the afternoon, it may make it extremely likely that the Open champion will be someone from the early Thursday/late Friday half of the draw. Given the unreliable nature of Scottish weather forecasts, however, it’s not a sure thing.
Playing early Thursday was a big advantage. Breezes kicked up in the afternoon and made the course play more difficult by several shots. Most of the low scores came from morning tee times.
Rory McIlroy tied the record for lowest round in a major championship with a nine-under 63, and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen was two shots back at seven under. John Daly (yes, John Daly) was tied with four other players at six under, and Tiger Woods was one of nine players at five under. Phil Mickelson, who had a later tee time and faced tougher conditions, shot a disappointing one-over 73.
“Today felt awkward because there was absolutely no wind whatsoever,” Woods said, “and you never play a links course with no wind.”
In other words, it was too easy. With greens as slow and soft as Twinkies and no wind, the Old Course felt more like the Obsolete Course or, perhaps, Old Pushover.
“For the real golfers, this course is for the taking,” said former champion Nick Faldo, taking a break from his television duties to tee it up. “For me, it makes it playable.” He shot 72.
Not bad, but par for the course was effectively around 69. Not that there’s anything wrong with that … for one round.
McIlroy, one of golf’s Next Big Things, was looking at 10 under until he missed a tiddler (that’s British for short putt) at No. 17, the Road Hole, for birdie. Young Rory — all of 21 — fired a 30 on the final nine despite that miss. He also eagled the ninth hole, where he drove the green and sank a 15-foot putt.
His round may have been foreshadowed by McIlroy’s track record at the Old Course. In eight previous competitive rounds before Thursday’s 63, his highest score was 69.
“It sort of went through my mind on 17 that 62 would have been the lowest round in a major,” McIroy joked. “That’s probably why I missed the putt. It was still a fantastic score.”
The field shot the lights out all day at Old Cupcake. Scotland’s own Coltart, a Ryder Cupper once upon a time, was also six under. Last year, he was following Tom Watson’s group in the opening round as a commentator for the BBC. He was considering looking for a new career after one stretch where he missed 16 straight cuts. “Yeah, I think I’ve been certified nutso four or five times,” he said.
Back in the Open as a competitor, Coltart holed a 50-foot putt at the sixth hole en route to his 66. He joked that he was particularly pleased that his tee shot cleared the famous sheds on the newly lengthened 17th hole and admitted, yes, “This round will be in my memory bank for a while.”
Remember John Daly? You know, the guy from that unwatchable reality show on Golf Channel? He actually won a British Open at St. Andrews back in 1995, but he’s ranked 455th in the world now and has been begging for sponsors’ exemptions on the PGA Tour. On Thursday, he got his driver working like the Long John of old. It would’ve been better except he lipped out four putts, and the Road Hole bit him for a bogey.
Daly even brought his A-game to the media. In reference to his lap-band surgery and his abstinence from drinking, the British press asked if there was another nickname they should use in place of “Wild Thing.” Daly came back with, “I don’t know — Mild Thing?” It’ll be in tomorrow’s headlines, absolutely guaranteed. His funniest line was totally unintentional. Daly said he was impressed with the 19-year-old kid he played with but couldn’t pronounce his name — it’s Seung-Yul Noh. It’s official then, Daly doesn’t know how to say Noh.
Sean O’Hair shot 30 on the opening nine. The Old Course was O’Hair’s first Open in 2005 when he won the John Deere Classic and became an 11th-hour qualifier, flew across the ocean and tied for 15th. His back nine was a little quieter. He posted 67 after bogeys on the 15th and 17th and is tied with Woods and a host of other players, including Lucas Glover and Nick Watney.
Trevor Immelman has barely been seen since his 2008 Masters victory, but he shot 68, as did Camilo Villegas, Ryo Ishikawa and Henrik Stenson, among others.
As morning gave way to afternoon, the spotlight seemed likely to fall on the game’s No. 1 player, Woods. He finished fourth in the year’s first two major championships, split from his swing coach and ditched the putter he used to win his last $80 kajillion. In his previous two appearances at the Old Course, he played it like he was the course’s original designer, and he looked reasonably sharp today, too.
It was obvious that he hasn’t forgotten how to play his favorite track. The message his round sent to the rest of the field? The party is over, fellas. I’m back, and I’m playing to win.
Unlike his stellar nine-hole run at Pebble Beach on Saturday at the U.S. Open, which Woods wasn’t able to back up in the final round, he appears capable of repeating this performance. Tiger isn’t the first-round leader, but he may be the man to beat.
The only really troubling part of the round for Tiger was his finish. He pulled a drive way left at the 17th hole, into thick rough adjacent to the second fairway. He muscled a recovery shot to the front of the green and had a long way to go to a tricky pin. His third shot rolled to within four feet, but he powered his par putt four feet past the hole. Bogey. At 18, he left himself a 10-footer for birdie and rolled that one past the left edge. Still, he sounded encouraged at the end of the day.
“You had to take advantage of the course today, and I felt like I did a pretty good job of that,” he said.
Thursday was a rare opportunity to shoot a low score. The Old Course and the Scottish weather are not likely to be this docile for the rest of the tournament.