SANDWICH, England — The clouds were a smeared gray on Thursday morning when the Open Championship began. If not for angry whitecaps, it would’ve been difficult to tell where the sky ended and the North Sea began. It was breezy with a hint of rain at Royal St. George’s — in other words, typical Open weather.
It was a typical Open start as well: nothing went as expected and everything you thought you knew was tossed on its head. By the end of a day full of surprises, there were only two sure things — Rory McIlroy isn’t going to win the Open wire-to-wire like the way he romped at the U.S. Open at Congressional, and weather forecasts aren’t worth the napkins they’re written on.
That’s the way it should be. It wouldn’t be the Open if it the opening round wasn’t a buffet of gasps. For instance…
McIlroy, the game’s new reigning superstar, bogeyed two of his first three holes-oops! This just in-apparently Rory is not perfect. Still, McIlroy fought back to shoot a one-over-par 71 — not bad.
Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world and one of the pre-tournament favorites because of his exceptional short game, couldn’t buy a putt with a credit card Thursday and also posted 71. “It could have been a very good round if I’d had the putter going,” a bemused Donald said.
The forecast called for a warm, dry day with strong winds howling at over 30 mph. Instead, there was a brief morning spritz, followed by a stray passing shower and steady winds of 15-20 mph, enough to keep flags flapping but not enough to turn this Open into the demolition derby it sounded like it might be.
“Certain holes are very, very tough with this wind direction,” said Ian Poulter, who shot 69 in the morning. “You don’t feel quite so bad if it’s south, southeast or southwesterly. You’ve got quite a few chances. When it’s this direction, the downwind holes are not easy. You can’t stop it anywhere near the pin. You actually feel relieved when you get into the wind because you’ve got a chance to stop a 5-iron, as opposed to not being able to stop a wedge shot downwind.”
The wind actually eased off markedly as the afternoon wore on, which was when a majority of the lower scores were posted.
It was still a plenty tough day at Royal St. George’s, even though two players made it look like it wasn’t. Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn was the official First Shock of the Day when he reached six under par after making a short birdie putt at the 16th, the hole where he lost the 2003 Open when he took three shots out of a greenside bunker. A minor bobble on the last hole left the 40-year-old Bjorn with a stunning 65, a story that was too good to be true eight years after his memorable loss.
Especially since Bjorn’s game had been a shambles of late and he was an alternate to the field, getting into the Open only Monday after Vijay Singh withdrew due to injury. Bjorn had a streak of three birdies in a row on the back nine, capped by that putt at the 16th, where he lofted a 9-iron shot close.
“I was talking to Ernie Els on the 11th tee and we were like, how is Thomas six under par out there?” McIlroy said later. “It was a three-club wind. I was hitting 8-irons 125 yards.”
It was a phenomenal day for Bjorn, who admitted he’s been uncomfortable on the course for some time and spent time this week working on the range with Pete Cowan, his swing coach. Bjorn went back out to the range with Cowan after his 65. Even more impressive was that Bjorn shot the day’s best score (later tied by amateur Tom Lewis) in the day’s toughest conditions.
“Only time will tell if I can last all the way until Sunday,” Bjorn said. “But I’m very, very delighted with today.”
The official Big Shock of the Day came late in the evening when Tom Lewis, a 20-year-old English amateur from Welwyn Garden City, fired a front-nine 32 and spent most of the afternoon on the leaderboard. He has blond hair and a baby face and looks like he might be only 12 years old. He caught the easiest conditions, as the flags were nearly limp when he rolled in a three-footer to save par at the final hole and tie Bjorn for the first-round lead at 65.
Lewis was a shock but maybe not to the locals. Lewis is a highly regarded amateur, having recently won the St. Andrews Links Trophy. He’s also got some history and local knowledge here. He captured the 2009 British Boys Amateur at Royal St. George’s.
After stepping off the course into a BBC interview, Lewis was asked what it was like to be tied for the Open lead. “I don’t even know what happened out there,” a sheepish Lewis said. “I can’t remember.”
Lewis was paired with Open legend Tom Watson, which was an amazing coincidence since his parents named him Tom in honor of Watson, who finished two-over. The Toms got a huge ovation from fans still in the stands at the 18th, a fitting end to a startling day.
Thursday’s other big surprises, in order of shock value:
Most interesting man in the Open: Miguel Angel Jimenez, the venerable Spaniard, was other major surprise, shooting a bogey-free 66 at the age of 46. In windy conditions on links courses, Jimenez said, it’s all about experience. Like when he played his iron shot past the pin at the 17th and used the slope there to bring his ball back toward the pin for an easy birdie. Jimenez is known for his ponytail and his love of red wine and big cigars. The biggest surprise was that one writer actually asked what he thought about being compared to the “Most Interesting Man in the World” character of American television beer commercial fame. Jimenez said he’s heard something about that, but in general he doesn’t think people should be compared.
Most sizzling finish by a bearded player: All right, it was probably the most sizzling finish by anyone, but Lucas Glover has gotten nearly as much mileage for growing his thick beard as he did for winning the U.S. Open a few years ago. Glover had a quiet one-under-par round in progress until he birdied the last three holes for 66 to tie Jimenez for second. Glover showed that he’s back in form in May when he beat ex-Clemson teammate Jonathan Byrd in a playoff at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Most amazing start: Rickie Fowler’s approach shot finished just off the back of the first green, a popular spot since that hole was downwind and the green was very firm. He left the pin in and holed a ridiculously long putt for birdie. How long was it? “Long enough,” Fowler said with a laugh. “It was 60, 70, 80 feet. I don’t want to re-hit it.”
Best comeback: Dustin Johnson complained about a sore throat and not feeling 100 percent, but he wasn’t complaining about his turnaround. Johnson was four over par through 13 holes, then went birdie-birdie-ace-birdie. His hole-in-one came at the 163-yard 16th hole. “Standing on 14, I wanted to make a few birdies to get back in this thing and if you would have bet me money that I would be one under par standing on the 18th tee, I would have taken it.” Johnson, the lanky American best known for his final-round meltdown at Pebble Beach and bunker mishap at the PGA Championship last year, finished at even-par 70 and did, indeed, get back in this thing. Johnson said he has a sore throat and swollen glands and he is taking antibiotics for an unknown infection.
Most surprising Low Irishman: Well, it wasn’t Rory. And while it wasn’t a shock that former U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell shot 68 late in the day with a birdie-birdie finish, it was an eye-opener to see longtime Ryder Cup warhorse Darren Clarke shoot 68. Clarke, 42, scored his first victory in three years when he won the Iberdrola Open earlier this year and he hasn’t had a top-20 Open finish since he tied for 15th in 2005 at the Old Course.
Most remarkable senior moment: Mark Calcavecchia, 51, teed off in the second threesome because Royal & Ancient boss Peter Dawson knows Calcavecchia likes to play early and he likes to play fast. With his wife, Brenda, on the bag, Calcavecchia clawed his way to a solid 69, leaving a par putt short and in the jaws on the 18th. The 1989 Open champ played only five practice holes Wednesday because it was so windy and also because his three playing partners bailed out on him so he was behind a pair of foursomes by himself. “I played 1, 2, 9, 17 and 18, see ya,” Calcavecchia said. He’s eligible to play the Open until he’s 60 as a former champ and he promises to keep showing up for his favorite tournament “unless I’m lame or something.”
Best performance by an Open rookie who didn’t expect to be here: Former Clemson University star Kyle Stanley was a bit surprised to learn he’d qualified for the Open last week even after Steve Stricker edged him with a last-hole birdie to win the John Deere Classic. Stanley admitted that until he finished his round, he thought only the JDC winner got the British Open invite. Luckily, he brought his passport and after his runner-up finish, boarded the tournament’s chartered jet to England. Stanley bogeyed the 18th hole Thursday to shoot 68 and looked pretty cool afterward. He credited his recent hard work on his wedge play and his putting for his run of good play. As for links experience, he said he doesn’t have much, other than Bandon Dunes and a Walker Cup appearance. His home state of Washington, he said, is wet but not windy. “So you don’t grow up hitting it low, you hit it high for carry because it’s wet,” Stanley said.
Worst start by a recent No. 1: England’s Lee Westwood made par on the first two holes, then bogeyed the next three. It was reminiscent of his slow start at Congressional, where he shot 75 in the first round and eventually rallied to place third, although he was ten shots behind McIlroy. Westwood battled back with three birdies on the second nine to shoot 71.
Worst display of math skills: The official Open bulletin described how Jerry Kelly kicked off the Open by hitting the first tee ball at 6:30 a.m. The release said he hit the fairway but three-putted for a bogey, which was eight shots better than the last time he teed off at Royal St. George’s first hole on the opening day in 2003 when he made an 11. Kelly had a 5 this time. Let’s see, 11 minus five is six, not eight.
“The rough at No. 1 was up to the waist [in 2003], now it’s just up to the knees,” said Kelly, who said he considered it an honor to be sent off first. “I enjoyed that. I recognize the irony in it after what happened last time.”