SOUTHPORT, England — The British Open does not re-introduce itself with subtlety. Instead it roils the landscape with windgusts and rain bursts and other forces from above. Rocco Mediate hadn’t played in one of these since 2002, the year Muirfield Golf Course nearly sank into the Firth of Forth, but he has proven sturdy in all sorts of pickles, most recently staring eyeball to eyeball with Tiger Woods.
In the first round of the 137th British Open at Birkdale, one month after nearly catching Woods at the tape at Torrey Pines, Mediate withstood a tender back, a long course and winds of more than 20 miles per hour to share the lead at one-under-par 69 on a testing day of golf. The 45-year-old Mediate, a sudden cult hero after his 19-hole playoff defeat to Woods at the United States Open, is tied with Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who won last week’s Scottish Open, and Australia’s Robert Allenby.
Greg Norman, at 53, stood only one shot back after a throwback 70, the same score carded by Norman’s protege and fellow Australian, Adam Scott, and American Bart Bryant. Several players, including major winners Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen and Mike Weir, trailed the leaders by two.
Phil Mickelson, the highest ranked golfer with Woods sidelined, ballooned to a nine-over-par 79, 10 shots out of the lead.
Once more, it was Mediate propelling himself into a major championship picture despite opening with three bogeys in his first five holes. After a birdie at the eighth hole, Mediate felt some pain in his back as he headed to Birkdale’s closing nine holes. (Back issues have dogged him for years.) During a break on the 11th hole, Mediate’s therapist, Cindi Hilfman, worked on his back, loosening the sacroiliac joint on his lower right side. Mediate then birdied the 13th, 17th and 18th holes, the middle one coming when a short pitch ran into the cup.
“He’s not a spring chicken,” Hilfman said.
Mediate sure isn’t, but he continues to find ways to climb leader boards and pull new people into his ever-growing fan base. While not as rowdy as the fans at Torrey Pines, a number of spectators Thursday at Birkdale brought up Mediate’s star turn in the United States Open.
“He’s like a rock star,” Hilfman said. “We go to Starbucks and people fight over who can buy him coffee.”
If Mediate’s staying power was somewhat unexpected, Mickleson’s demise may have been a bigger shock, even if he has rarely contended in this major. He arrived early to the United Kingdom to get acclimated and competed in the Scottish Open.
But in the morning wave at Birkdale — the more difficult of the two sides of the draw because of the heavier rain and stronger wind — Mickelson failed to keep his round together. After making bogey on three of his first four holes, Mickelson knocked his approach shot on the par-4 sixth hole into the thick rough. He never found it, took a penalty stroke, and finished the hole with a triple-bogey 7.
“Talk about my round,” Mickelson said when it was over. “It’s not a fun topic of conversation. But it was tough for everybody. Obviously, when you shoot 79, you’re going to have to come back with something pretty cool to get back in it.”
Mickelson was the most high-profile victim in Birkdale’s trying morning conditions. Wind gusts swept across the links, topping out at 25 miles per hour and sending golf balls hurtling in all directions. Umbrellas rippled and pants legs shook. Flagsticks swayed like palm trees.
Sandy Lyle walked off the course after 10 holes, deciding that his 11-over score would get no better. Jerry Kelly, who once blistered the United States Golf Association for its set-up of Shinnecock Hills in 2004, called the Royal and Ancient’s presentation of Birkdale the worst he has ever seen. (Shooting an 83 couldn’t have helped his mood.)
Funny thing is, Norman called Birkdale’s setup the greatest he has seen.
“It’s the best British Open I’ve ever played in,” said Norman, a two-time British Open champion. “It has been set up by the R&A as the fairest and toughest I’ve ever seen.”
Norman threaded his ball through the afternoon conditions and somehow came out clean on the other side. Slim and strong as always, Norman looked as comfortable as anyone who stepped on the course. After getting married in the Bahamas last month to tennis great Chris Evert, Norman said his life had never been in better balance, even if he only competes sparingly these days.
“There is something about this championship that stimulates me,” he said.
He isn’t the only one. Goosen found his way to four birdies. Weir tossed in an eagle. Ian Poulter of England calmly navigated Birkdale in two-over 72.
“It’s easy to let [the weather] get to you on this golf course,” said Poulter, adding that the conditions were not as bad as the winter-like blast on a Saturday at Muirfield in 2002. “We all remember that week — it was a lot worse than this. Your tee-off time is your tee-off time. It’s the luck of the draw.”
By the middle of the afternoon, the winds had calmed and the rain had eased, leaving better scoring opportunities for those with later tee times.
Mediate, who has been thriving since Torrey Pines, was among those who played in the afternoon. He’s still riding the vibes from his magic week in San Diego, unwilling to view it as one moment in time.
“I still think I have one of these [in me],” he said of winning a major championship. “Whether it’s this week or this month or next year, whatever. I don’t feel like I’m on my way out. I feel like it’s just starting again.”